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The Human Ego

Enlightenment influenced modernity deifies the mob. While the despot, the dictator, and the king identify themselves with the state, freer societies imagine a collective consciousness of the mob. “We the people.” Both are jingoistic. Both wave their banners, chant their slogans, fight their wars, and pledge their allegiance. Both idolize wealth, power, and militarism. Both prostrate themselves before Mammon and Mars, and in the process sacrifice their souls. What makes so many of us so willing to join in?

The human ego is that portion of our minds that mediates between the unconscious (or subconscious) and the conscious. The ego is our identity as formed by the genetics and influences of our ancestors, families of origin, peers, teachers, and environment. It is who we see ourselves as and who others see us as being. In the formation of that identity, the ego seeks to balance morality (the superego) and instincts (the id).

I see myself, for example, as male, heterosexual, of European decent, from a family that has lived in what is now the Untied States since the early 1600s; economically lower middle-class; above average educated; a recipient of white privilege in a racialized society; introverted, and studious. I particularly love the ocean, marine life, and sailing. I also would define myself as a husband, father and grandfather; and, most significantly, as someone who is trying to follow Jesus. I therefore also see myself as the recipient of unmerited grace living in a universe of unfathomable wonder and beauty. I have a deep compassion for those who are suffering and a passion for social justice.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It just is what it is. It doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else. But there’s more to the ego.

Like most of us, my ego is fragile and over-guarded. The ego sees and hates its own faults in others, and by so doing, avoids its own conversion. I deeply fear rejection, nonexistence, and meaninglessness. I can be distracted by things of no value, like success, image, prestige, and the applause of others. I can be subject to grandiose fantasies and clinical depression. I can miss the beauty that is right in front of me because I’m pining for something far off. I can under appreciate what I have, who I’m with, and the present experience because I’m envious of what looks like a greener pasture. I can fall easily into self-condemnation, especially when I betray my own values. I have at times morphed chameleon-like to fit in with a group.

It is this false self – the old self that is over-protected, fragile, and dependent on the approval of the crowd – that Jesus calls us to deny. He does so in order that we might discover and live into all we were created to be. It is a long, slow, and at times painful process. We tend to like the old bastard.

With a pliable and overly guarded ego that shifts as is searches for meaning, I lose myself. I become an image of who I think I am, who I want to be, or who I think others want me to be. I will dance to any tune to be loved and accepted.

But deeper than all of that lies my true self. Beneath the lower middle class educated sailor given to self-condemnation, is the true me – the unique me, created in the image of God, loved by God, distinctive from all others, yet essentially a part of all others, of all creation. Connected to creator and creation, comfortable in the liminal space of continuous growth and ever-expanding wonder.

Contemplation gets us in touch with the deepest reality. By deeply meditating on sacred scripture and spending time silently in the stillness of the divine, gradually and repeatedly, the ego experiences conversion after conversion.

We connect, become grounded, rooted in love. All of nature and every relationship become gifts to enjoy, care for, and treasure. Success, power, control, honors, accolades, possessions – all mean nothing. The opinion of the crowd means nothing. Vulnerable, open, honest, humble, and teachable, eschewing violence, coercion, and injustice, we rest, filled with shalom, in the divine everlasting arms.

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