Putting The Ego Back In Its Cage

macbeth-and-the-witchesOur world is saturated with the human ego these days. We are swamped. It can feel hard to breathe at times. The constant display of ego makes us feel cheap, degraded, diminished. After the circus of purported public discourse—the presidential debates, for example—we wince. It’s more about the ego than it is about ideas or dreams or solutions. The ego has always been that monster under our beds waiting to pounce at any moment. Once loose it damages leaders. It corrodes our world. It messes things up, destroys things that are  good and decent. Our nation is paying a price for letting the ego out of its cage.

We’ve all got them, of course, these egos. There is no escaping that we all think about ourselves, almost constantly. We catch ourselves not really listening to someone, for example, calculating instead what will we say next. What’s the next trump card I can play? Why is this person saying such stupid things? How can I take control of the conversation? How can I show how cool I am, how smart? These are the kinds of internal conversations we too often have with ourselves, even in the midst of ordinary conversation.

I was telling a friend the other day that every person who takes the podium knows the feeling, midway among remarks, when the ego takes over. The ego becomes the subject instead of the topic or the audience. You get to thinking you are pretty cool. This speech is going great, you think. But once you have slipped into this ego stuff, your ideas begin to lose weight. They begin to sound thin and tinny. You step off the podium feeling cheap. You thought you had fooled your audience but you haven’t. They know. Your speech turned out to be all about you, and no one cares. Oh how I regret those times when I slipped off this edge and let the ego take control of what I was saying or how much I really did care about the people in the audience.

Most cultures have cautioned about the ego run wild. Greek tragedies tell the story over and over. Shakespeare picked up this theme with consummate skill—the overcharged egos of Macbeth, Lear, Othello finally bring them down, bringing down as well the whole kingdom. It can start quite innocently. Macbeth hears the voices of those mysterious witches hinting that he too could become king. Imagine that, he thinks. Once the seed is planted in the fertile soil of the ego, the weed grows like kudzu. The individual is at risk. So is the nation.

So what do we do with this monster ego? Well, that’s the question answered by religion. At least the Christian religion is emphatic about this sinister reality in our lives. We must tame the ego. That’s what the spiritual disciplines are all about. We tame the ego by realizing, deeply, that we are flawed, that we fall short, that we are in deep need of help. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”–that’s the prayer of the nineteenth-century Russian pilgrim. He prayed this prayer morning and night. Out of this prayer, actually any prayer, comes the posture of humility. We pray on our knees before a merciful Christ. This is the spiritual practice of taming the ego.

The spiritual disciplines turn us toward the light that nourishes new life beyond ourselves. We find ourselves feeling grateful. Henri Nouwen has said that we learn to enter into “the discipline of gratitude,” that “explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.” I am worthy not because of my own doing. I am worthy because I have been given this extraordinary gift. That makes me grateful. Gratitude calms the ego.

And notice the reward for taming the ego–it is joy! It forces us to ask if the bitter aftertaste of all that ego stuff is worth it? We have a choice. We can get up each morning and practice the discipline of gratitude. Joy will be the result. I am convinced of it. If the literature of our world is any indication, the ego is a hard taskmaster. It is not easily subdued. We need help. For that we turn, each morning, to the grace and love and utter acceptance of a God who offers these very gifts. This will free us from the battle of the ego. This will turn us toward a life of gratitude. It all comes through daily practice, yes, the discipline of gratitude.