Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 1
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Mark 8:34-37
Who am I? And who is God? Francis of Assisi, a 12th Century Catholic Saint, pondered these questions regularly. Indeed, such questions plague us throughout our lives and are seemingly unanswerable. When we are infants, we almost completely identify with our support system – those who feed and care for us. Our world is small, and we are vulnerable. As we grow and become increasingly independent, we realize we have a measure of free will – we can manipulate our environment to better meet our needs. We increasingly find ways to gain control over our lives and cease to accept without question that which our support system offers. Thus begins our identity as a separate and independent being. As we reach adolescence, we become increasingly dissatisfied with those who provide for us. We want our freedom, we want to live life on our terms, and we no longer want to be held back by the seemingly uniformed wishes of parents, teachers, and others who retain annoying levels of control over us. By the time we are in our late teens, most of us have developed a strong and entrenched ego. We find this growth process recorded allegorically in Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. They rebelled against God and left paradise to live as beings separate and apart from God.
Developing an ego is a necessary and natural part of human development. It helps us identify a place and purpose in the world around us. Our ego dreams of great things and envisions a perfect life, if only we could escape the tyranny of the oppressive others who stand in our way. The ego, however, unchecked by reason and experience, is a deceptive informant. Egos are inherently insecure and narcissistic, protecting themselves at all costs. They portray our problems as the fault of others, so we look external to ourselves for solutions when we should be looking within. Our ego categorizes everything and everyone as useful or useless to itself – she is popular, so I will befriend her; he does not dress nicely, so I will shun him. The ego is a harsh judge and a ruthless critic. In order for one thing to be good, something else must be bad. Our egos strive to carve an important and unique niche in the world. Unfortunately, our egoic special place always comes at the expense of something or someone else.
When we follow the dictates of our ego, we find ourselves saying things, taking actions, and treating others in ways that are inconsistent with how we were created to be. When we reflect on our words and actions, we know we can and should do better. There is a God-given essence within us that the ego finds threatening and tries desperately to suppress. Many authors, Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton among them, refer to the ego as the false self and our essence as our true self. The false self is so called because it only allows a small, self-centered portion of who we are to manifest. Our true self is the part of us that was created in the image and likeness of God. It is who we are at our core. Our true self is directly connected to God by an unbreakable bond. As we learn more about our essence, we simultaneously learn more about God. When our true self attempts to act or speak in ways that go against what is popular or culturally acceptable, however, the false self will seek to shut it down. Our egos cannot bear social criticism.
A contemplative life seeks to allow the true self, the essential self, to blossom – not to destroy the ego, but to put it in its rightful place. We enhance this process of growth through contemplative practices. When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to losing our ego as the primary source for interpreting the world around us. Our egos can be good servants, but they are tyrants as masters. I will focus on our essence next week.
This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.
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