All of us struggle with the problem of ego.
In the right amount ego is inherently positive and provides a healthy level of confidence and ambition. When ego works well it drives out insecurity, fear and apathy. But left unchecked, and this is where it is most obvious, it can get out of control. Ego can easily then become arrogance. When that happens it attacks our talents and abilities. This is either through overconfidence and giving the false illusion that we’re better than we actually are, or by robbing us of confidence so that we lose trust in our ability to use those talents to capacity.
So at one extreme ego is the tendency to think too little of oneself and so fall into the trap of not valuing who I am and the contribution I can make. At the other extreme is the more obvious problem of thinking of oneself more highly than is appropriate and running insensitively over the feelings, plans or ideas of others.
The football manager Jose Murhino is often disarmingly honest and illustrates this danger with his comments to a Spanish radio station in 2011 when asked what he felt God thought of him:
"He must really think I'm a great guy. He must think that, because otherwise He would not have given me so much. I have a great family. I work in a place where I've always dreamt of working. He has helped me out so much that He must have a very high opinion of me."
When things go well in life it is very easy to fall into this kind of thinking.
Somewhere in the middle between thinking too highly and too little of oneself is humility that keeps our ego balanced and between these two extremes.
John Newton (1725 -1807) was a slave trader who lived a life of profanity, gambling and drinking. He experienced a spiritual awakening which led to a radical change in the direction of his life. He wrote the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. A favourite saying of his captures what it means to live with humility while keeping one's ego in check:
“By the grace of God I am what I am. I am not what I want to be, but I thank God I am not what I once was.”
It is living in this tension between having gratitude for how far you have come while recognising how far you still have to go that is a hallmark of real humility.
But what exactly is humility? The English word humility comes from the Latin 'humilitas' and means 'from the earth'. It is about being appropriately grounded in oneself, not thinking too highly or too little of oneself.
One of the problems with the word is that it tends to be associated more with the negative than the positive. So we tend to think of humility in terms of not being arrogant or boastful, or not putting yourself above others. Here is the best definition I have come across:
"True humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps us from thinking too highly or too meanly of ourselves. It makes us modest by reminding us how far we have come short of what we can be."
To put it even more succinctly humility then is not thinking less of oneself, but rather thinking of oneself less. Its opposite is pride, vividly and disturbingly defined by Keller as 'a ruthless sleepless unsmiling concentration on the self'.
There is a tendency to think that the opposite of having too much ego is humility. However, the problem with too little ego is that it fails to value oneself and the important contribution I can make. There is a general lack of confidence in oneself and a loss of appropriate self-esteem. Getting the right level of ego involves a healthy tension of the following three areas:
- We, then me thinking (devotion to progress)
- I'm brilliant, and I'm not (duality)
- One more thing (constructive discontent)
According to the authors Marcum and Smith the deepest level of humility is at the intersection of these three domains. The challenge is keeping each of the three in equilibrium. When we are on centre then our talents stay true to form and we are able to make our greatest contribution. However, we all have a natural tendency to deviate from the equilibrium. As we move away from the centre we begin to lose the power of humility and our apparent strengths then become weaknesses that pretend to be strengths.
We will explore this further in a future post, but for now what has helped or hindered you in making sense of your ego?