Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ego: Friend or Foe?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 26, 1999

from "Stolen Car"by Bruce Springsteen
Well I found me a pretty little girl and I settled down
In a pretty little house in a pretty little town
We got married and promised never to part
Then little by little we drifted from each other's hearts
Now I'm drivin' a stolen car on a pitch-black night
And I'm doin' my best to make it through...

Well I'm just sittin' down here at the Stanton light
I wanna get caught but I never do
At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by and our love grew deep
But in the end it was something more, I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep
And I'm drivin' a stolen car waitin' on that little red light
I keep tellin' myself everything's gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
That in this darkness I might just disappear.

She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and we were bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel a hundred years old...

And I'm drivin' a stolen car through a pitch-black night
I keep tellin' myself everything's gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
No matter what I do or where I drive
Nobody ever sees me when I ride by.
from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, with Bill Moyers
Campbell: ...Have you ever read Sinclair Lewis' Babbit?
Moyers: Not in a long time.
Campbell: Remember the last line? "I have never done the thing that I wanted to in all my life?" That is a man who never followed his bliss. Well, I actually heard that line when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Before I was married, I used to eat out at the restaurants of town for my lunch and dinners. Thursday night was the maid's night off in Bronxville, so that many of the families were out in restaurants. One fine evening I was in my favorite restaurant there, and at the next table there was a father, a mother, and a scrawny boy about twelve years old. The father said to the boy, "Drink your tomato juice."
And the boy said, "I don't want to."
Then the father, with a louder voice said, "Drink your tomato juice."
And the mother said, "Don't make him do what he doesn't want to do."
The father looked at her sand said, "He can't go through life doing what he wants to do. If he only does what he wants to do, he'll be dead. Look at me. I've never done a thing I wanted to in all my life."
And I thought, "My God, there's Babbitt incarnate!"
That's the man who never followed his bliss. You may have success in life, but then think of it-- what kind of a life was it? What good was it-- if you've never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life? I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have that feeling, then stay with it, and don't let anyone throw you off."
Here's another little boy in a restaurant story:
One day, a little boy went out to lunch with his father, down to the local diner. The waitress came over, and the man ordered liver and onions. "He'll have the same thing, too," the man said, pointing toward his son.
Well, from the boy's face, the waitress saw that the boy wasn't too pleased with the thought of liver and onions.
"And what'll you have?" she asked the boy.
"I want a hog dog," the boy said.
The father said, "No hot dog. You'll have what I ordered. You'll have liver and onions."
The waitress ignored him, and asked, "And what do you want on your hot dog?"
"Ketchup!" the boy said.
"Coming up!" she said, and before the father could make a fuss, she was off to the kitchen.
There was just a moment of awkward silence that followed, until finally the boy, looked his father straight in the eyes, and said proudly: "Dad, she thinks I'm real."
That waitress (unlike that father, and unlike the one in the story from Joseph Campbell we shared earlier) was determined to do what she could to save that boy from the psychic desolation faced by the loser in terminal loser in Bruce Springsteen's song "Stolen Car":
    And I'm drivin' a stolen car through a pitch-black night
    I keep tellin' myself everything's gonna be alright
    But I ride by night and I travel in fear
    No matter what I do or where I drive,
    Nobody ever sees me when I ride by...
Now, I admit that the analogy of someone who can't even get caught driving a stolen car may seem a little extreme for most of us. I would hope that we all have more going for us than that. But it indicates, I think, the kind of assault our sense of selfhood can come under in this competitive, frenetic, accumulative culture of ours. Watch the faces of many of the people you might see, day in and day out-- caught in traffic along 128; waiting at the station for the train into Boston; dropping the kids off at school in the morning; hurrying up to buy groceries for supper. Don't you sense a certain emptiness, a deep ennui, a sense of distance and alienation there?
I do-- often, many times...
Perhaps I'm just reflecting my own sense of emptiness onto others...
Which, of course, would be significant unto itself...
We had our hippie friends from Maine, Ben and Cheryl, over for supper on Friday night, as they were passing through the area. And as we sat and talked, one of the great topics of our times came up, as it always seems to when people get together: We all took turns complaining about how busy we were, and about how there's so little time anymore to visit with friends, so little time just stop and talk, and stay in touch, and (as we talked about a couple of weeks ago) strengthen those ties that bind us to one another. There seems to be so little time in the busy lives we all lead for reflection and creativity and spirituality.
As I listened, and looked around the table, it dawned on me: Has it gone so far that even two middle-aged hippies from the woods of Maine-- people who have dedicated their entire adult lives to being counter-cultural-- have been sucked into the morass of this mad culture? There are so many influences in our modern lives, tearing us away from deeper contemplation of the spiritual-- deeper contemplation of the meaning of this existence-- that even those of us who take spiritual and religious matters very seriously (I work in the religion business, for God's sake, and I'm sitting there complaining about not having enough time for spiritual matters in my life!), can emerge from a typical week of do-do-doing drained and empty and listless and wondering just who we really are.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh's words come back to haunt me, time and again:
"[Our lives] today," she wrote back in 1955, "[are] tending more and more toward the state William James describes so well in the German word Zerrisenheit-- torn-to-pieces-hood."
But "[We] cannot live perpetually in Zerrisenheit," Lindbergh warns. If we do, "[we] will be shattered into a thousand pieces."
And then it is, that we'll "ride by night and travel in fear/ that in this darkness [we'll] just disappear". Then it is that we'll drift through our lives, dazed and confused like sleep walkers, only half awake (at best) to life. Then it is that we'll relive the (all too common) American tragedy that Bonnie Raitt sings about of the man who goes off to work all day, and comes home in the evening with nothin' to say.
No, the self is the gateway to the soul-- the gateway to the spirit-- the gateway to God. Without a sense of personal esteem-- a sense that I matter-- a sense of ego (from the Latin: "I am."), there is no life worth living. Without this life-- with its laughter and tears and joys and defeats and stories to tell one another when we get home from work and letters from the past to reread and cherish over and over again-- without this life andour individual places in it-- there are no building blocks with which to build a genuine life of the spirit; no gossamer threads with which to weave the interdependent web of being.
One of my favorite meditations (by the brothers at the Weston Priory, I believe) begins:
    There is an energy within us which makes things happen
    when the paths of other people touch ours...
    But we have to be there to let it happen...
To be a human being, one first has to be.
Now, of course there are those people who don't have any problem with an underdeveloped sense of selfhood. To the contrary, some people need a good dose of humility more than they might need Viagra or some other prescription from CVS.
One afternoon, just before the flight he was on was about to take off , the stewardess reminded the great heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali to fasten his seat belt.
"I don't need no seat belt," Ali responded. "I'm Superman."
"Well, Superman don't need no airplane, either," the stewardess retorted. Ali fastened his seat belt.
An old Irish story tells about this pompous and self-important priest in a village somewhere, who apparently kept confusing himself with the Big Guy he was supposed to be working for. He loved to boss other people around, and make threats if they didn't do what he told them.
One day, he rode his carriage to the local pub, and got out, and ordered a young man who was passing by to hold his horse while he went in for lunch. The young man got kind of perturbed because he was on his own way home for lunch, too. So, he refused to stay there and take care of the priest's horse. That, of course, angered the priest just a tad
"Don't you know who I am?" the priest intoned. "I have the power to stick your feet to the very ground if you don't obey me!"
"Well then," said the young lad, "if you have such a power, then why don't you stick the horse to the ground here, and we can both go and have our lunch?"
Remember the scene in the movie Titanic, where Leonardo DiCaprio sneaks on board the ship and rushes to the most extreme end of the bow (for which I am sure there is a nautical term I don't know), and stands there in triumph, and feels the wind against his face, and breathes in the salt air as the ship speeds forth, and holds out his arms, and cries, "I'm king of the universe!"
It's a wonderful scene. So inspiring and uplifting. The height of youthful self confidence and carefree abandon, it seems.
But don't forget what happened to Leo a couple of hours down the road, when he gets a rather icy bath in the North Atlantic.
Too much ego-- being too full of ourselves-- sets us up for that kind of icy reception from life.
When we put ourselves-- our little selves-- at the center of the universe-- we are creating a very fragile universe.
When we worship only at the altar of our own egos, our own self-importance, we are worshipping at a really small altar, indeed.
Sometimes, we need to know that we are not 'masters of the universe", but that we stand profoundly humble before the greater forces of the natural world and the unfolding cosmos-- and humble before one another with whom we share this earth. It is only by rooting our lives within these greater forces, and directing our sights toward these greater goals, that the so-often-absurd, always-limited, oh-so-finite lives of any of us can grow to become truly meaningful.
If we cling with all our strength to our own little lives as the center of all meaning, then we ultimately drown in a sense of our own absurdity-- or, we grow tired, and lose hope, and give over control of our lives to some outside authority.
The point isn't to get rid of the self, but to cultivate it and develop it until it becomes a greater self. In spite of what the Kansas Board of Education might say, the whole point of life aims toward evolution-- physical evolution, emotional evolution, intellectual evolution, spiritual evolution. Life is all about growing and changing and evolving.
Our ego-- our sense of self-- is the tool through which we apprehend the greater consciousness of Being in which we live and move. Our very sense of ego-- our sense of autonomy and selfhood-- is the product of billions of years of life's evolution upon this planet. What amazing grace! What a magnificent blessing! What an awesome spectacle!
Ego isn't a bad thing. It's just not everything. It has to grow, and become something more:
"What existed before human beings had ego?" Ken Wilbar asks. "was it something better, holier?" Then he answers his own question:
"Prior to the ego was not angels, but apes; and prior to that, worms; and prior to that, ferns; and prior to that, dirt. The [development of the] Ego was not a Fall down from the Ground [of Being], but a major step up" toward the realization of human possibility and our greater consciousness of who we truly are.
Spirituality isn't about denying the self.
It's about letting the self evolve.
It's about pealing away all the layers of our little selves and uncovering the flame-- the Holy Spark-- that burns within.
I guess you could say it's about replacing the lower case self with the upper-case Self (and maybe, though I'm not a Freudian, it has something to do with growing the Ego into a Superego).
Lower-case self, the good old little ego, is made up of fear and defenses. Its supporting walls are the expectations of society, the have-tos and ought-to-dos, the "you-gotta's" and the "thou shalt not's".
And a certain number of those are needed to get certain jobs done, and keep the wheels of society turning. But that's not where we're going to find our Garden of the Spirit being built.
There is another Self inside of us, the greater self, the capital-S Self, which we neglect only at our own emotional and spiritual peril. It's what Emerson called "the Oversoul": "that the Highest dwells in us; that the sources of nature are within our own souls"...
And Emerson also writes:
"[An individual person] is the facade of a temple wherein all wisdom and good abide... Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which [gives us] wisdom. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence," Emerson writes, "which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing, but allow a passage to its beams."
We live within a vast Mystery, and when we are At-One with that Holy Spirit, our human selves (our hearts and minds) become conscious of it, and (with hands and hearts engaged) become instruments of it.
"[Then] all mean egotism vanishes," as Emerson writes in his essay Nature, "we become part and parcel of God."
We need to listen to the voices inside ourselves. We need to hear what they're telling us. But there are a lot of different voices, you know, and not all of them are terribly helpful as we struggle to make our way toward bliss, back toward the Garden of the Spirit.
How can we tell if we're listening to the humming angels, or just to the whirring gears of the ego stuck in overdrive?
A wise woman named Sandy Alemian-Goldberg gives us some pointers for learning how to listen:
"The soul is continually speaking to us," she writes, "but it often cannot be heard through the chattering [of the ego]. But there are a number of ways to connect... We [can] create a sacred and safe place for [us] to connect with the wisdom, truth, and love within [our] soul[s]."
And Sandy then enunciates some of the ways we can discern between the voices.
    The Ego will tell us: "You need to be perfect."
    The Soul will say: "You are perfect in this moment."
    The Ego will tell us: "You have to be right."
    The Soul will say: "Do the right thing."
    The Ego will ask: "What if..."
    The Soul will say: "So what..."
    The Ego will shrug: "It's just a silly coincidence."
    The Soul will respond: "Coincidences are guideposts."
    The Ego screams: "Show me the money!"
    The Soul whispers: "Follow your bliss. Feel the passion."
    The Ego demands: "Ignore your pain. Repress it. Stuff it way down..."
    The Soul says: "Face your fears. Hug your demons. Learn your lessons."
    The Ego says: "Don't risk a broken heart."
    The Soul says: "Love is always worth the risk..."
    The Ego warns: "Stay on the path you already know."
    The Soul says: "Follow your heart. Follow your calling. Discover your path."
    "Be like everyone else," the Ego demands.
    "Be who you are," the Soul invites.
We are partners, all of us, partners, comrades, friends-- with one another, and with that great Spirit of Life-- God, goddess, Creative Interchange, call it what you will. We are partners in this ever-becoming universe. This is our faith: that we are inherently worthwhile (that there is a spark of Divinity within you and me and all of us)-- and that we are joined one to another, with all the universe, in that blessed interdependent web of creation.
As Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, has written:
"Your gifts-- whatever you discover them to be-- can be used to bless or curse the world...
None of us alone can save the world
Together-- that is another possibility."
May this be our hope and our prayer.

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