Dear Fr O’Shea,
I notice that you are constantly criticizing the Ego in your answers to questions, and in your comments on the gospel too. Why be so negative? I remember a prayer called En Ego, when I was young. How can it be bad if it’s the name of a prayer? Please explain. Maura
I remember that prayer, too, and the picture of Jesus that usually accompanied it. The words ‘en ego’ are Latin, and they mean, ‘Behold, I…’ They were not so much the name, as the opening words, of that prayer. En ego, o bone et dulcissime Iesu….
Just about as often as I have said negative things about the ego, I've also said it is not something bad. The word ‘ego’ just means ‘I’. When people talk nowadays about the ego they are talking about your identity. If someone says crossly to you, “Who do you think you are?” they are questioning your notion of your own identity. This shows an awareness that we can be wrong about our identity. We can have “high notions and low stations,” as my mother used to put it! So, our identity is not something bad in itself. What is bad is when it is a mistaken or inadequate identity, and it obscures our real identity. What is bad is the way we allow a mistaken notion of ourselves to control and distort our lives. We do this best when we are not aware of it. Dieticians don’t tell you that food is bad; they tell you to be aware of what you are eating – and above all, as I once heard one of them say, why you are eating it. So it’s about discriminating, being aware of what you are eating…. It is the same story with the ego. Think of the most egocentric person you know: selfish, inconsiderate, insensitive to others’ feelings, self-absorbed, narcissistic…. What would it take for such a person to change right around: to become open-hearted and generous, self-sacrificing, compassionate….? Maybe it would take a miracle. But it’s not a good idea to sit back and wait for one. We can do something about it ourselves. We can begin to watch our egos and become aware of how they operate: how they lead us along beaten tracks and confirm us in a false or partial identity.
I passed a group of teenagers the other day and noticed that every one of them was taking selfies with their mobile phones. It’s the age of selfies now. When people show you their holiday photos, you see their own face in almost every photo. Here’s the Eiffel Tower, and here am I with my back turned to it. Here’s the Mona Lisa, and here am I, outshining her subtle expression with my dazzling rows of delph…. Technology can be used to make us more and more self-absorbed. The ego is the original selfie, and the selfie in turn is in the service of the ego.
Mobile phones make it perfectly visible, but we human beings have always been sticking ourselves into everything. And not only in modern times. Around the time of Christ, the Roman poet Ovid told the story of Narcissus. Narcissus had been told that he would live to old age if he never looked at himself. But one day he noticed his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with himself on the spot. Whereupon he passed away, leaving nothing but a flower, named ‘narcissus’, in his place. If it’s still the same one, it’s a measly little daffodil. People who become absorbed in themselves leave a meagre legacy.
We don’t criticise the ego – this false or partial identity – just for the fun of it. We try to nudge it a little off centre so that we can glimpse a deeper identity. Your ego is your own creation, but your deeper identity is God's creation; it is you as God made you. All the great religions are trying (successfully and otherwise) to bring us back to that identity. Our own Christian faith does it with a particular poignancy. God becomes one of us to show us how to be human. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and his life is a double revelation: he shows us who the Father is, and he shows us what a human being is. After that, we are unwilling to settle for anything as inadequate as the ego.
“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” Jesus said, “but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mk 8:35). This phrase is repeated throughout the gospels, so it must be a key one: Mt 10:39; Mt 16:25; Lk 9:24; Lk 17:33…. It seems a contradiction. How are we to understand it? I take it to mean that we have to lose our ego to find our true self.
I hope these few thoughts will be of some help to you, Maura.