Weekly Edgework #51 - June 20, 2005
A world in which all one’s wishes were fulfilled would, quite apart from disappointments, be an unpleasant world to live in. The world would be too like a dream, and the dream too like a nightmare. The Ego would be too big for the Cosmos; it would be a bore to be so important (“Wishes”, The Uses of Diversity, G. K. Chesterton, 1921).
By the time you reach my age it is just as important to check regularly for an enlarged ego as it is to check for an enlarged prostate. Enlargement of either can do severe damage. The problem is, of course, that both tend toward enlargement without conscious effort. It just happens, you might say. But once you know of the enlargement there are things you can do about it.
The most problematic of the two is the enlargement of the ego. This is the case because the larger our egos grow, the less likely we are to consider that a bad thing. Equating ego with self-image, we tend to follow the maxim “bigger is better” in our minds. It is good to have a healthy self-image, we say – the healthier, the better. And sub-consciously we add the thought that it is good to have a healthy ego – the larger, the better. But this is a false parallelism, and a dangerous one at that.
Chesterton suggests that wishes that go unfulfilled can serve to keep our egos in check. A world without disappointments, he notes, would invariably turn our lives into dream worlds in which enlarged egos would twist our dreams into nightmares. That is why persons for whom everything seems to fall into place without a struggle are particularly at risk. You might say they are predisposed toward ego enlargement and should take preventative measures to keep their egos from inflating.
Of course the truth is that everyone lives with disappointments and unfulfilled wishes. But because of the seductive powers of ego enlargement some of us are prone to turning disappointments into something else so that our egos can continue to swell unabated. On the surface this may look like a healthy optimism. Oh, well, we say, that didn’t work out, so let’s try something else! All’s well that ends well. God is leading me in another direction. You can’t keep a good person down. And so, through a process of wizardry, we refuse to face the truth about the disappointments that come with not having our wishes fulfilled. If we allowed ourselves to feel the disappointment we would experience an ego check and that might begin to reign in our ascending egos. But usually we prefer to live with illusion rather than to have our egos deflated.
And as the process of ego enlargement continues we subconsciously try to ensure its steady growth because we are secretly enamored with its progress. We begin to draw our strength from it like we do from a shot of adrenalin. We know that living too long on adrenalin can be disastrous for our bodies. Likewise, drawing steadily on an enlarging ego will inevitably do damage to our souls, leading to a nightmare for us, those who have to live with us, and indeed the Cosmos.
Enlarged egos are easy to spot in other people but difficult to recognize in ourselves. And - God forbid - should others suggest to us that we have an ego problem, we are quick to find fault in the character of the persons making such an absurd suggestion. Who are they to judge? They certainly are not perfect and probably have a hidden agenda lying behind their attempts to bring us down a notch or two, we are inclined to say.
But I recommend that we all take a more humble stance with reference to our egos. Rather than rebuff those who try to address our ego problem that is evident to everyone but ourselves, we should invite our closest friends to tell us what they see in us. Recently in a men’s class at our church a close friend humbly asked that others come talk to him about symptoms of woundedness in his life to which he was blinded. I respect such an openness to vulnerability. It can only lead to personal growth, in spite of, and probably because of the fact that such dialogues will inevitably serve to keep his ego in check.
But we can do some of our own homework to curb the enlargement of our egos. My Oxford English Dictionary defines egotism as follows: Too frequent use of “I” and “me”; practice of talking about oneself; self-conceit; selfishness. It might be a good thing to print out this definition and tape it to the mirror in our homes that we use most frequently. And then committing ourselves to do a personal check on our egos every time we look in that mirror.
Search me, Oh God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23).