One of the most powerful forces in the human brain is the sense of self. Often called the Ego, this definition of “me” often goes un-scrutinized as we allow it to shape our actions. We attach labels to ourselves and we let those labels define us so much that it can be jarring, unsettling, to try and detach them from our sense of self.
Ego, then, always has the potential to be a force for complacency. It leads us to value habits without regard to their value to us. We allow “good enough” to become normal because “better” takes uncomfortable change. It can lead to a quiet oppression that, when challenged, can become a very real oppression, as we strive to maintain a status quo that makes us comfortable. Ego can be divisive, as we let our sense of self over-ride our love for one another.
It can also, paradoxically, be one of the strongest forces for loyalty, respect, and cooperation. Robert Heinlein, in the voice of one of his most famous characters, put it this way:
“…once you pick up a stray cat and feed it, you cannot abandon it. Self-love forbids it. The cat’s welfare becomes essential to your own peace of mind-even when it’s a bloody nuisance not to break faith with the cat.”
Lazarus Long; Senior of the Howard Families.
Time Enough for Love
That was intended as a metaphor for the parental relationship that Lazarus had developed with a set of twins, sheltered and confused in the wider galaxy. It is also a metaphor for our families, our congregations, and any other community to which we allow ourselves to become attached. Once we make that entity a part of our sense of self, we loath to see it disrespected or put at risk. Sadly, this can lead to the same sorts of stagnation and obstinate suppression of growth that an unexamined ego can cause in an individual. You see, all change, and thus all growth, requires risk.
It can be wonderful to feel like you are part of something. It is, generally, wonderful to have a healthy community that respects you while helping you grow and achieve. We should all strive to build a family for ourselves on relationships of mutual trust. What we must be careful of is that we do not become so bound up in labels and titles that we eschew growth and the inclusion of new ideas, new individuals, and the ability to let go of things that are not making the community better.
Ego is a hard thing to manage. Most people don’t really bother. But the essence of being self aware is knowing which labels are helping you be the kind of person you want to be, and which labels are now holding you back. It helps to have others you can trust to help you make those valuations. It is essential that those people not just mirror your own prejudices, lest they convince you that there is no more room for improvement.