“She has good ego strength.” When we hear that said of someone, do we consider it a more positive attribute than when we hear it said, “He has a big ego?”
Or how about, “She has a fragile ego.” Does that mean she’s hyper-sensitive, too thin-skinned, is easily discouraged or defeated, that she gets her feelings hurt too often or easily? A manner, in case you haven’t noticed, that can also be highly manipulative.
Or is a “fragile ego” just as often the backside of a proverbial “big ego,” as, for instance, the guy who postures as emotionally stronger than he really is? Which is why he always tries to “dominate,” or needs to be “right,” who wants to “win at any cost,” who has such a high need for “control,” who may, unfortunately, merely be a “bully” in his interpersonal relations.
Or for that matter, can so called “humility” be pseudo? Perhaps the most socially sanctioned of disguises for a kind of “pride” that lacks integrity, that is of little good to or for anyone?
I’ve noticed that when I get upset about whatever–when I don’t get my way, when I’m disappointed in myself or others, when it’s apparent that I don’t have the influence I wish I had, when my opinion or point of view isn’t considered as worthy as I think it should be, when I feel discounted or devalued, even ignored by whomever–when these are the circumstances, and I’m reacting negatively, how too often it seems that my ego has gotten in the way.
Is that because I have too much ego–or not enough?
Eastern religions–forms of Buddhism in particular–devalue the ego. That’s why, among other reasons, I gave up on being a Buddhist some years ago. I failed. My ego–however too much or too little–it got in the way.
By contrast, Christian theology and ethics affirms the ego–at least in proportion. As in, for example, such tension as exists between these two particular proof texts–both from St. Paul–speaking of someone who had an ego.
“For God has not given us a timid spirit, but one of power and love and self-control.” (II Timothy 1: 7).
Or, by contrast, ” . . . I bid everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think . . . .” (Romans 12: 3).
So what’s a Christian to do when it comes to our ego?
When I was in seminary, years ago, I read a seminal book, a classic, by a German theologian, a New Testament scholar named Adolf Deissman (1866-1937). The book was entitled, simply enough, Paul.
Traditionally, Protestants have claimed that the emphasis in Pauline theology is on “justification by faith.” A “doctrine,” if you will, that reflects something of a “legal or judicial connotation.” Deissman, however, claims otherwise, citing the ubiquitous “in Christ” phrase (or some form thereof) found throughout Paul’s letters. Says Adolf Deissman: “In Christ”–that’s the key, for Paul, to Christian theology and ethics. Remembering, of course, that from a Christian perspective, there is no ethics without theology, nor theology without ethics.
In fact, Deissman understands this “in Christ” concept as a form of “Christian mysticism,” which he contrasts with the mysticism characteristic of the Eastern religions, in general, and forms of Buddhism, in particular.
The former (the mysticism of Christian faith) Deissman terms “reactive mysticism,” in contrast to the latter, which he terms “absorption mysticism” (as in that of classic Eastern, a-historical religions, particularly forms of Buddhism).
If the latter (“absorption mysticism”) requires a “loss of one’s ego,” as in “the self” (the “ego”) being “absorbed into” the Deity (or deities), the former is comparable to what a Christian would likely term “stewardship.” In such “reactive mysticism,” for example, instead of being “absorbed into” the Deity, rather God lives and acts “in” and “through” one whose life is open to God’s vital, creative and redemptive presence (what a Christian would understand as the “living, resurrected presence/Spirit of Jesus, the Christ”).
In other words, Christian faithfulness (one’s attitude and behavior; if you will, one’s “stewardship”): it is not, as the song says, “Living for Jesus.” As much as it is–in Paul’s understanding and interpretation–an open-ness, in trusting faith (submission?), which allows “the resurrected Spirit/presence of Jesus, the Christ” to live and love and work (“stewardship”) in and through any and all persons who manifest Christian faith, devotion and commitment.
Nowhere is what I’m speaking to–the function of the “ego” in Christian theology and
ethics–more graphically depicted than in what is commonly referred to as Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” in Matthew 25. In this story, one person is given “five talents”; another is given “two”; while yet another is given only “one.”
And, of course, those “talents,” material or otherwise, can refer to any number of different things: resources, qualities, strengths or gifts. Is this, then, not somehow connected to the function of one’s ego? What Christian theology and ethics would term “stewardship.”
In interpreting this parable, it’s easy to get diverted by the obvious inequity that seems normative when it comes to anyone’s and everyone’s living.
A more fruitful understanding of the parable is, I think–not that some people obviously “have more or less” than do others–but rather how responsibly and effectively one develops and expresses (makes good use of) what s/he has been given.
As in the case, in this parable for instance, of the “one talent” person who makes “no use” of what s/he has been given. Is that because s/he is too concerned with comparing her/himself with the other persons who have been given relatively “more?”
Such an interpretation seems not unreasonable. Since the “one talent” person emerges, in the story, as a “textbook example” of what a psychologist would call “passive-aggressive.” In that s/he actually blames her/his “poor stewardship” on the very “dispenser of talents” whom the “one-talent” person claims is “intimidating.”
“Master, I knew you to be a hard man; I was afraid, so I buried my talent” (Matthew 25: 24-25).
Is the “lesson” in this particular parable, indeed, not what Adolf Deissman has termed “reactive mysticism,” what Christian theology and ethics would call “stewardship?” Requiring, it would seem, at least some (sufficient?) “ego strength?”
When it comes to faithful Christian living, at least, the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin was often heard to declare: “We don’t have to prove ourselves; we are meant, rather, to merely express ourselves.” Since that love who God is (called “grace”)–it’s not something we can win or lose–only receive and “pay forward” in gratitude.
I have, over the years, found both of these insights helpful–Deissman’s “reactive mysticism” interpretation of Paul’s “in Christ” motif, and Coffin’s “we’re called not to prove, but rather express ourselves” admonition–helpful, at least, when I “get my shorts in a knot” about something over which I have little, if any control; when I’m failing or falling, whether of my own doing or not.
Accordingly, yours or mine or anyone’s ego, it is not meant to be devalued–at least from a Christian perspective–our task is, instead, to let our ego serve its fruitful purpose, rather than “get in the way” of the faithful Christian “stewardship” to which we are called.