Pomposity, bombast, claptrap, pretentiousness, arrogance, ostentation, magniloquence: all of these are synonyms for grandiosity. In a therapists office, an exaggerated sense of self-importance might be noted as a symptom of mental illness but on the street, in the office and certainly littering all forms of social media, it is how we do business and make our way. So it is no surprise when I ask my mother if she is particularly attached to any of her character defects and she says readily:
“Oh, that’s easy, grandiosity—although I prefer observing it in others whose lives do not overlap with mine rather than in mine.”
Yes, don’t we all.
The alcoholic community is a teaming pond of ego maniacs with inferiority complexes. We love the sound of our own voices to the point where a lot of AA groups have implemented the 3 or 5 minute rule to keep the talker from hijacking the bulk of the hour. When time is up, a sign is raised or a chime is wrung, or the meeting chair interrupts and says loudly, thank you, that’s all. I have personally triggered the latter when carried away with my own crucial “share” and the memory of the sting still makes my cheeks burn. But even with the threat of exposure, I favor grandiosity too and I find new and more subtle ways to keep it in my bag of tricks, like tacit refusal to participate in a conversation that I consider frivolous and beneath me.
My mother loves to carp about her fellow AA members whose self-important rants trigger the contempt that accompanies a ‘you spot it, you got it’ reflex. She mentions Ron who speaks with an affect of drawing out each syllable until the entire room breathes a sigh of relief when he finally completes the word. He usually wraps up with:
“I’m Ron and I’ll be here for you.
I’m glad you’ll be here for me.”
to which my mother thinks to herself:
Then she brings up someone she describes as: former member Fred:
“Why do you call him former member?”
“Because he went back to the place from whence he sprung.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean he’s a former member.”
“I know, she says but I just have a feeling he is.”
“What’s your beef with Fred?”
“Well, he was an expert on everything whether he knew anything about it or not and he spoke with this superior tone of voice that made it clear he was really pleased with himself.”
Then she says:
“But I have some experience with antagonizing my fellow members too.”
“Oh?” I ask, thinking perhaps for the same reason. “Do tell.”
She describes her first year in AA and a man in an especially large, loud pair of cowboy boots who stomped out the door every time she spoke making it pretty obvious what was driving him from the room. She said she asked him at one point what his problem was and he said:
“I don’t like you and I don’t like what you have to say.”
My mother laughed at that and told him:
“That covers a lot of ground but I for one, get a lot out of what I have to say and your big old boots thumping out the door won’t keep me from sharing at the meeting.”
She kept right on speaking up and he kept right on leaving.
Burney and I both understand that humility is the path to everything we long for, theoretically anyway. We understand that strong personalities and opinions doused in hubris can stir up vengeful responses in those around us. But sometimes neither one of us can help ourselves. I ask her how she picks herself up after a particularly humiliating lapse and she says
“Oh, you know, I have no trouble laughing at myself—but I’m just as ready to laugh at you too.
I’m an equal opportunity laugher.”
Me, I have a lot of trouble laughing at myself—and that is, I think, ground zero of grandiosity. But sometimes it takes a little arrogance just to get me out the door and into the fray and that is the useful side of an over-amped ego. Shadows and light, shadows and light.
With that in mind I ask my mother, can you think of an instance when this character defect was a help rather than a hindrance?
She brings up our cross country move to California, a watershed for us if ever there was one. She remembers crossing the mighty Mississippi River and pulling up at a diner in Arkansas early on the first morning. When we sat down at a booth, my mother, my sister, our African American housekeeper Dorothy and me, we got attention but no service, just unfriendly stares. My mother was unnerved by the hostility in the room but it was the only restaurant for miles and she said to herself,
“Are you going to let these mean, beady-eyed waitresses intimidate you? Come on, Burney, you’re the Queen of the Edinburgh festival.”
She strode-as only a former model savvy in heel switches can-up to the cash register like she had just been elected mayor and said,
“Good morning, we have been driving all night, we are tired, we are hungry and we would so appreciate it if someone could take our order.”
They did, they did it grudgingly, scaring Dorothy half to death but they did it.
My mother says that, in truth her better angels are not too high or low, not seeking special favors but bold in the knowledge that she is somebody in this world and just as deserving of respect as anyone else.
She changes the subject and says,
“You sound particularly loud and harsh today”.
“Mom, I think you accidentally put me on speaker phone.”
“Oh, you were filling up the room, like the voice of God”
“Just flexing my musculus grandis”
“Grandiosity mom, grandiosity.”