The name for this blog comes from the Hebrew word merchab. Merchab is a masculine noun that appears most often in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. It means a broad or roomy place, an expansive place, a wide place. Read more...

March 25, 2010

Who Am I?

This post continues a conversation that began on Facebook. The conversation became too complex for the limitations of that medium when Jaqueline posted the following comment:

I notice talk of the ego a lot in these sort of writings, and for many, reliance on the ego is something that needs to be challenged, but for very many others, especially those brought up in long term trauma or experiencing long term trauma, war torn or otherwise, a very important concern is the lack of ego stability and development. Managed solitude is vital in these cases in order to strengthen a sense of self and boundary because full- on undefined interaction with others can overwhelm and dissipate what fragile sense of self trauma survivors have. Yet for the same reason, the last thing they need is isolation, mainly because their experience has left them terrified of being alone with an inability to anchor/ locate a sense of themselves. Their need is to build up the ego structure in order to be whole, in order to love, to connect with themselves and the world and develop trusting relationships . I sometimes think it is important to be aware that breaking/weakening/crumbling of the ego can also be a result of damage. Mindfulness/ meditation/contemplation in this case does the opposite of crumbling, it helps put our egos back together- it provides an anchor, a second skin in which a sense of who a person is might be restored.

My Response

The use of the term “ego” in spiritual tradition, particularly Christian spiritual tradition, is complex. It is commonly said that you have to have an ego, before you can let go of your ego. This seems to suggest that the human task is to develop a secure, stable sense of self in order that one may then choose to surrender that sense of self.
However, Jesus said to his followers, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) The evidence of the fearful failure of Jesus’ first followers makes it unlikely that Jesus felt he was giving this instruction to people who were possessed of a strong robust sense ego. Jesus’ first followers were just as insecure, vulnerable, fearful, and wounded as any of us. And yet, Jesus did not qualify his instruction to these broken disciples. He did not say, first go and develop a strong sense of self so you can then choose to deny yourself and follow me. Was this an oversight on Jesus’ part? Was he being insensitive? Or, did Jesus perhaps know something that we tend to forget?

According to the Genesis account of creation, all human beings are created “in the image of God.” This means that something of the nature of God is inherently part of our created being. We are all born with an indomitable reality at the core of our being. We come into this world with a self that shares in the nature of God. This self is radiant, strong, secure, and indestructible.

Tragically and mysteriously, from almost the moment we are born, we begin to doubt the existence of this durable self with which we were all created. We begin to experience ourselves as vulnerable, weak, and insecure. In response, we start to seek ways to protect ourselves and to create an identity we hope will not be at risk. We start to believe that the human task is to manufacture and preserve our own fragile identities. We embark upon an ego-building project, determined to create something within ourselves that will feel secure and strong. We look around for others who will support us in this project and try to avoid people or situations that might threaten our tentatively constructed little ego building.

It is as if we were born with a million dollars in our bank account but we do not know the wealth we possess. Because we are unaware of the incredible resource created within our being, we spend our lives rushing around gathering bottles and cans out of our neighbours’ recycle boxes and cashing them in for the few cents we believe are essential to our survival.

It is true that I cannot give away something I do not know I have. But the important thing is to realize that it is a matter of “knowing” not a matter of reality. I do not have to create my identity or build my ego. I am a child of God, created in the likeness of the God who brought the universe into existence. Nothing can undo this transcendent truth of my being. Nothing that has ever happened to me, no matter how tragic or painful, can ever undo the reality of who I am as a person created in God’s image. Nothing I have ever done can destroy the truth that I am a radiant spark of light that has come from God and is destined to return to God. I do not need to protect this reality or keep this reality safe or secure; I need only to recognize it and live from this truth of my nature.

This is the reality in which Jesus lived and died. On the cross Jesus surrendered everything we normally look to in an attempt to give ourselves a sense of security and safety. Jesus lost his dignity, his power, even his sense of God – “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Yet it was through his acceptance of the experience of complete abandonment that resurrection occurred.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). This is not primarily about money. A rich person is anyone unfortunate enough to have become convinced that his or her ego-building project has succeeded. A rich person is one who, by sheer “luck of the draw,” has been gifted with enough talent, or beauty, strength, financial resources, or skills to never feel the need to look more deeply within to find the true source of their real identity as children of God. But, not matter how “rich” we may be, whether we admit it our not, we know that our sense of need is never fully satisfied by our riches. So we create stories to try to hide the need we feel.

We create “success” stories to try to convince ourselves we are “good” because of our great achievements. But our achievements do not make us good. God alone has created goodness within every human being. We build big kingdoms and stand back to admire them, pleased with how well we have done. But then our kingdom begins to shake and suddenly we have to scramble to build a bigger, better, more impressive kingdom to keep the story of our goodness alive.

Our failure stories tell us we are bad, that life is threatening and that we must fight to defend our rights. When we listen to this voice, we create a hungry monster who is never satisfied with any scraps of achievement, or with any warm feelings, or affirmation. It does not matter how many people embrace us and tell us how truly fine we are, the story is never enough; we keep yearning for more. A dark corner of doubt always remains lurking at the edge of our consciousness. As soon as someone comes along who tells us that we are not so fine after all, the story of our failure reemerges with a vengeance.

We have been taught all our lives to listen to the “success” stories and to pay attention to the “failure” stories. But neither story has the power to give us a true, deep, and lasting sense of self. The self that arises in response to these stories always depends upon more stories, more “success,” more affirmation, more strokes, more gold medals, more empathy, more attention, more understanding. And these stories can always be undermined by the arrival of some, even minor, failure or set b back.

The only hope of developing a durable sense of self is born when all our external identity supports let us down. We only begin on the journey towards a true sense of self when we let go of the stories we have looked to in a futile attempt to shore up our identity. We are not the good things we have done; we are not the bad things we have done, nor even the bad things that have been done to us.

When we go into solitude, pray and worship, we allow these stories of “success” and “failure” to fall silent. We no longer look at ourselves in terms of “success” or “failure. We discover a “place” deep within us where we know that God made nothing “bad,” where we know that our security lies in something larger than any ego building we might ever construct. We begin to be able to live beyond “good” and “bad.” We uncover within ourselves a true source of abundance. We no longer live from the abyss of lack or the pit of need.

When we go into our room and “shut the door and pray to our Father who is in secret,” the “Father who sees in secret” will reward us with the strength of our true identity. (Matthew 6:6) We find an inner depth that speaks of God’s presence in our lives; this is all we need. Jesus said, “strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) We find our true self, not by seeking a sense of self, but by seeking God. We need to seek out those practices that help us to open to the deep reality of God speaking in our hearts and allow the chattering voices that torment the surface of our lives to fall silent.

It is only when we come to the end of all our little ego projects that we reconnect with our true nature. It is only when we give up trying to create ourselves that we discover that we have indeed already been created. It is only when we stop trying to be secure and feel safe that we find out that we are in fact secure; we are in fact safe and strong. There is nothing that can “separate us from the love of Christ” not “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword.” (Romans 8:35)

The human journey is to come to that place in life where I discover that in fact I am intact. My ego has ceased being my master holding me hostage to the roller coaster of other peoples’ response to me. My ego now serves the truer deeper self that is my true identity as a being created in the image of God. I discover that I am free of all those external masters that have dominated my life. I am free to live from that true inner strength that is my birthright as a child of God.

My true self is strong and deep because it is a gift given by God. This discovery only comes through grace and grace only becomes active in my life when I stop working for it. My true strength emerges when I stop trying to be strong. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Matthew 5:3) My true beauty arises when I stop trying to be beautiful. Peter says, “let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” (I Peter 3:4) I discover my true security when I no longer struggle to be secure. The prophet Nahum declares, “The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, even in a rushing flood” (Nahum 1:7)

Life may seem like an endless series of “rushing floods.” There may be pain, doubt, fear, and uncertainty. But these things do not have the power to define us unless we let them. We are bigger, richer, deeper, more real than all the sad or broken things that have ever entered our lives. There is a security and strength within us that does not depend upon success any more than it is threatened by failure. No person can bring us to this place of true security and strength. We get there only by letting go of all false securities and trusting in God alone to give us a true deep and abiding sense of who we are. When we get there we discover that no one and nothing can shake the indomitable reality of who we know ourselves to be.


Jaqueline said...

Dear Christopher,

Wow and thank you...

My worry is that we think ego itself as a bad thing, yet many of us have had to understand painfully that indeed ego is a necessity, just as our skin is...

You write: "My ego has ceased being my master"

I think this is the key concept that enables you and I to understand each other. I think we both are in essence saying: whatever condition our ego is in we cannot rely on it as our final or complete identity.

Whether one is recovering from damage and a compromised ego or someone who has relied on a too strong ego or even a healthy ego..the truth is the same..who we are is more than skin deep. As we wait on God and find our identity built up in God our ego's can take their rightful place as servant to the master of our self in Christ.

I thought a lot about the scaffolding imagery you shared and it helps me understand what I think it is you are wanting to say: Our ego is meant to serve that which is being built. If we identify too strongly with that scaffolding it will not reveal the true dwelling underneath. Conversely as in the case I tried to explain, we cannot build a dwelling without scaffolding either.

Our centering on God focuses us on the master builder, our inner most selves become the dwelling for the living God , the heart of God becomes our home and rest and our ego takes it's rightful place serving all ( and in service to a good master a rather happier one too ).

I want to say Amen to that.

peace to all



and Amen to all of that!