Spiritual growth involves a surprising paradox.
As I read through some of the popular modern writers on the spiritual life (for example, Richard Rohr), I encounter a paradox that has baffled me.
These writers like to talk about the two stages in the spiritual life. In the first stage, normally associated with our youth and young adult years, our challenge is to develop a strong identity and a strong ego. This is very important, they say. We need a strong identity and ego in order to assume our proper place in life in our world.
But in the second half of our spiritual life, we are called upon to surrender if not our identity, then especially our ego. The second half of life is about letting go, letting go of everything we have worked so hard to acquire: our social achievements, our well polished skills, our professional competence, our wisdom and knowledge, and ultimately of our very body in death. This is necessary to rise to the fulfillment of our spiritual destiny.
As I said, I have found myself baffled by this paradox. If developing a strong ego is so important, then why is it imperative to surrender that ego in the second stage of life? Is that saying that these writers are engaged in a contradiction? In the end is our ego not as important to acquire as these writers say? How can I make sense of such talk?
I’ve wrestled with these questions for some time. Here’s how I came to a personal resolution for myself.
The Importance of the Ego
I think daily life as well as modern psychology both demonstrate the importance of young people developing a strong personal identity. Without such a strong identity, young people will prove unable to stand resolute when the gales of life, such as social and work pressure blow against them.
Along with that identity, young people need to develop their God-given talents and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to hold down jobs and invest themselves in service to the world. Education and training are of fundamental importance.
I argue that all of this is part of developing a strong ego. So what’s the problem with a strong ego? There is no problem with a strong ego per se. What becomes the problem is the ends to which we put that ego, with its talents, hard-won skills and knowledge. Do we use them all simply to advance our own well-being and self-aggrandizement? If so, then we adopt a basic stance of ego-centrism in facing the world. Our lives are all about me and my well-being.
Or do we place our talents, our skills, and knowledge in service to a purpose beyond just our own well-being and self-aggrandizement? Do we marshal our identity into service to something that exceeds our own person? If we do not, then our egocentrism does indeed become an obstacle to growth, both in the spiritual life as well as in healthy human relationships.
That purpose that goes beyond our own welfare and enrichment may take many forms. It can be a devotion to a family, a business, a community, or a social or political cause. It can be a religious vocation. It often takes the form of patriotism or some form of nationalism. It is why when we become involved in a cause greater than ourselves, we can feel that our lives are more expansive, more meaningful.
All this can be very good, but I think Jesus suggests that it does not go far enough. In all of these cases, devotion to a greater cause than ourselves can be corrupted into another form of egocentrism, as we try to impose our own vision and desires upon the cause we serve.
Jesus offers an alternative in his Sermon on the Mount when he preaches:
…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the necessities of life, like food and raiment] will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. [Matthew 6:33-34]
It does not seem to me that in this counsel Jesus is denying the importance of a strong ego, especially those talents, skills, and knowledge that we bring to our daily living. But he is directing us to put those assets to work in a cause greater than our own self-survival and enhancement. Place your life in service to God’s kingdom, says Jesus.
If we are serious in following his counsel, we will find that truly seeking the Kingdom of God constantly challenges our own conceptions and desires as to what serving the kingdom of God is. God defines the kingdom, not us, and what the kingdom needs. If we truly seek the kingdom of God first, we will constantly be challenged to subordinate our own ego needs and demands to that spiritual reality. And that will often be experienced as a form of death.
Yet the paradox is that as we consent to that kind of death of the ego, we find that our service brings the very enhancement of life that our ego so ardently desires and presumes it is giving up when it consents to its death.
Here it seems to me lies the resolution to the contradiction that I said has so baffled me.
Author’s Note: I think we can attribute the popularity of this vision of the two halves of the spiritual life to two important writers of the early 20thcentury. They are the psychiatrist Carl Jungand the scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Both writers have had a profound influence on conceptions of the spiritual life that we find reflected in popular writings today.