What does the word really mean? My shorter Oxford English Dictionary tells me it may be from the Latin word "to pretend" and refers to someone pretending to merit or special worth, especially in a false sense. Yet, the pretending can just be ostentatious or affected, even regarding a technically true trait.
Think of where one sees it in oneself and in others--and by others, I do not just mean individual persons but also groups of persons and institutions.
The pretentious, for example, like to bring out the family tree--some famous ancestor or other or just the fact of having a detailed family tree. The pretentious also like elite connections in their zip code or on their diplomas. And don't forget the unnecessary use of job titles: congressperson, judge, doctor, professor, reverend.
It is amazing how much and how often people push pretension in our faces. Of course, there is collective pretension: my country or ethnic group or school is just so special--it may just be better than yours and thus, by implication, so am I!
When we are pretentious, we have made a momentously bad choice. We have decided that we are not good enough without this baggage of pretence. So we pile on as much baggage as we can for personal and public display.
Of what use is all the baggage? Does it really change our self-appraisal? Can we really delude ourselves into thinking ourselves better than we really are?
Now, we can delude others; but the shrewd are not deluded, or, at least, not deluded for long. So you can really fool only the foolish. Of what use is the awe of fools? Fools are by definition in awe of the trivial.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Let's then replace our impulse to pretence with something better. Substance and character are great candidates. And the best substance is humble and compassionate and so does not lean on props for self-worth. Focus on those traits, and even the really shrewd will be impressed--and we will no longer be delusional about our own self-worth.
(Image in public domain)