By Matt Steel
27 February 2021
What does it mean for us human beings to live, to be truly alive? At the ground level is survival, or maintenance of the “vital heat,” as Henry David Thoreau called it. Until food supports your body’s internal combustion and clothing and shelter conserve your vital heat, balance and happiness are luxuries you can’t consider. And if you have a family to support, only when their vital heat is secured can you look up from the ground. But throughout history and across cultures, once their basic needs are met, people take a philosophical turn towards purpose, meaning and the pursuit of happiness. Civilization begins.
The fact that we can even ask questions about quality of life and balance belies a position of immense privilege. For most of us in developed countries, our lives overflow with material blessings. But countless opportunities for gratitude go floating by each day as we strain after more and more things that we supposedly need. There’s no end to our pursuit of security when the borders of necessity and luxury are never marked out and held firm.
In Walden, which might as well have been called Living, Thoreau reflected on what we’ve lost as our so-called necessities have expanded:
“The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.”
When it comes to quality of life, what are our rights and entitlements? Before answering this question, we would do well to remember that the universe owes us nothing. Let that sink in for a minute. Though countless voices tell us otherwise, you and I are not entitled to peace, happiness or abundance. We certainly have the right and should be free to pursue these good and wholesome things. It’s wrong to withhold them from law-abiding citizens willfully. Our basic rights are inalienable; this is why society begins to break down when we trample or deny them. But outside of legal semantics, rights and entitlements are not the same. Our belief that the universe owes us a certain level of privilege is a recipe for heartbreak and disaster. It comes from ego expectation, which is one of the ways we build up what Thomas Merton and Eckhart Tolle called the false self. Expectations lead to disappointment, disdain, and disillusionment. When we worship happiness and demand that the universe serve our every whim, we become blind to our abundance. Indeed, happiness becomes utterly impossible. We crave more and richer food but cannot taste the morsels in our mouths. We become so preoccupied with the question of what’s next that we fail to ask where, what and who we are. How can we discern what’s next when we ignore our ontological questions?
In his wise and luminous New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton describes this false self as a mirage:
“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.
“This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God – because Truth, Light – knows nothing about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.
“My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”
Earlier in the book, he says,
“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls. …
“In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die.
“The reason for this is that I am born in selfishness and therefore my natural efforts to make myself more real and more myself, make me less real and less myself, because they revolve around a lie.”
This false self is the mask, the parody of personhood that the ego creates. Or rather, the ego’s work is more of a distortion of what already exists than a true creation. The distortion is sin itself, the unnatural nature we inherit that drives us to do the very things we don’t want to do. Ego and personality are deeply linked. Various definitions of personality abound, but I describe it as the thick outer layer of motivations and defensive strategies which encase the perfect soul, that it may survive in an imperfect world. Personality is both a tool that helps us navigate life and a limitation that narrows our worldview. It’s not who we really are, but rather an addition to our essential self.
God creates each of us to reflect specific aspects of his nature, or what Enneagram teachers call Holy Ideas. It is pure, scandalous grace that love and hardship cause growth, growth causes the cuticle of personality to crack, and through these cracks our God-likeness – our true self – shines. Virtue develops and healing, however partial, begins. God and God alone can complete this process. Now we live in faith, believing in his finished work and unfulfilled promises. In the next world we will live undimmed. If we choose to get out of God’s way, death is the final cracking and shattering that releases our true selves into perfect freedom and peace.
Most psychologists agree that personality is part nature and part nurture. At the foundation of personality is a set of deep fears and desires that develop throughout early childhood and crystallize around age six or seven. While our personalities can undergo radical change throughout our lives, those basic fears and desires never leave us. We can’t shed or change them at a fundamental level, and it’s futile to try. As The Enneagram Institute’s cofounder Russ Hudson says, “The problem isn’t that we have an ego, but that we think we are our ego” (emphasis mine). While personalities are inherently limiting, I believe they are somewhat separate from and much smaller than our eternal souls. This is important: you and I are more than our personalities. When we embrace this fact, our egos can slowly but surely shrink to a manageable size. We identify our illusions and start to see the world as it truly is.
When I see that nothing is an entitlement, every moment, every breath, every crumb is a gift I receive with gratitude. As I appreciate more, I strive less. I start to work smarter rather than harder. I begin to get clear about just how much effort is required to live, grow and serve. From that serene vantage point, I can see the false duality in the notion of work/life balance. Instead, I look for ways to create a joyful harmony between work, rest, and play – because all of it is life and because the triad of work, rest and play are deeply interdependent. When we neglect one point of this triad, the other two suffer. When I’m attentive to all areas of life and the interplay between them, I can start to move with grace through shifting seasons without grasping or fretting. Eventually, my life will look less fractured and frantic, more coherent and calm. I will become what God made me to be: a human being, not a human doing. My actions will spring from a center of presence and stillness.
But we never have enough when we believe the lie that society owes us a laundry list of entitlements. We’re insatiable. Constantly looking across fences and envying the supposed bounty of our neighbors, we become anxious, embittered, overworked and depressed. Though our anxious toil may yield more and bigger houses, vacations, cars, clothes, likes, followers, our capacity for appreciation will be stymied by a lack of gratitude.
For the true self to expand, the false ego must shrink. To enjoy riches, I must cultivate a poor spirit. If ego runs my life, I can amass all the wealth in the world yet never enjoy any of it. And if I believe I can create a meaningful, sustainable living without relying on other people, I might actually starve.
Ego is fueled by pride, i.e., the belief that we alone can save ourselves and that we can become entirely self-sufficient and free from needs, flaws or weaknesses. Pride overvalues the ego and undervalues the spirit.
Pride running rampant rejects even the possibility of a soul and thereby cuts the self off from true community. Souls shrivel or thrive in proportion to their reliance on each other. The false freedom and egocentric individualism that modern society has embraced are choking our communities and impoverishing our souls.
We have no power until we recognize our need to rely on a power greater than ourselves.
Unless we abandon the ego’s kingdom of grasping and move into the soul’s kingdom of being, desperation will be the defining characteristic of our lives.
I’m reminded again of Thoreau, this time from an earlier part of Walden:
“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance – which his growth requires – who has so often to use his knowledge? … The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. …
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
This quiet desperation grows from the anxiety we feel, first about meeting basic needs and then increasingly in proportion to the list of our entitlements. Our fear is rooted in the belief that everything depends on us. We believe at a visceral level that only our busyness and toil separate us from annihilation.
But is that really true?
With characteristic pathos, Jesus challenged this deeply held belief in his sermon on the mount in Matthew 6:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For … your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Easier said than done! It’s not like anxiety is a switch we can turn off. As a self-employed person, this passage is hard for me to accept. My family’s well-being depends on my ability to generate income, and that income can vary from month to month. But, I’m learning that in times of anxiety, five things will see me through. I invite you to try these things or your own version of them.
1. See the anxiety, name it, sit with it.
Acknowledge and welcome the feeling of anxiety, uncomfortable as it is. It’s here for a reason. Notice where you feel it in your body. This will help you climb down from your head, get into your body and get present. Instead of judging, blaming, rationalizing or seeking explanations, name the feeling and welcome it. The feeling is valid and it belongs – for now. Instead of getting stuck in a heart-head loop, say (out loud), Heart, what else do you want to tell me? And then, just listen and be patient. For some of us, our emotional intelligence is buried deep and needs time to surface. It sounds silly, but it works – and the responses may surprise you. The heart holds hidden knowledge. Your inner witness only needs to ask, and answers will bubble up like spring water.
2. Give it to Someone stronger than you.
If you pray, go into a quiet room, sit down, set a five or ten-minute timer and close your eyes. For a few moments, simply breathe and notice how breath works without any effort from you. Then, enter God’s presence by acknowledging your desire for control and your eagerness to move past the pain. Know that pain is necessary for growth, and do not try to rush through. Ask God for the courage to feel and discernment to see what grace he intends in this season of discomfort. Tell him what you know: this is an emotion, it will soon pass and it does not define me. Then tell him, I have nothing else to say. Until the timer dings, simply sit in the desolation and poverty of your soul. Listen. Breathe. Your mind will wander. Return to breath. And when you’re done, don’t jump out of the chair or off the floor. Sit a moment, eyes gently open now. Thank you. Thank you.
3. Reflect on the past and claim your promises.
Look back on your life and recall the ways you and your loved ones have been cared for. For me, a project or a check often came just in the nick of time. My family has never gone without a meal, never had to camp under an overpass. And in my faith tradition, I take great comfort in the promises found in the Bible – especially in the Psalms, which express the full range of human emotion and light the thorny path from pride and despair to humility and hope.
4. Observe the ego, question it and move toward conscious living.
Identifying the ego and its secret projects is a lifelong process. Still, you can begin today by paying attention to where your energy is drawn and gently questioning the ego’s motives. Write down any observations that come to you. Ego projects are compulsive, irrational and unconscious. These are the things we do when living on autopilot and the unhealthy ways we cope with pain. By practicing meditation, journaling and contemplative prayer, we begin to see the ego’s projects and make conscious choices to pursue or reject them. For myself, ego projects often manifest as envious comparison and competition. I also over-identify with my suffering, whereas some people repress, reframe or deny. If I can cling to the pain, says my subconscious, then I can control it.
Your defenses might be completely different, but we all have strategies with the common aim of soothing our egos. By simply noticing these defensive patterns at work, we return to free will: we can begin to choose how we behave.
5. Find human shelter.
Perhaps anxiety and despair drive you into isolation. Maybe you run to a substance or diversion that numbs the pain and offers temporary relief. Or perhaps you turn to frantic, superficial socializing. None of these destinations provide shelter or support. Seek empathetic, stable and accepting friends. Allow them to see your suffering. I don’t suggest indiscriminately venting your emotions or manipulating people to gain pity. Instead, find at least one or two confidants with whom you can be truly vulnerable. Lean on them when your strength is gone. Look to return the gift when the tables turn. The best shelter comes from people who have suffered, who became stronger and more compassionate as a result.
6. Get to work on the real work.
In front of any entrepreneur or leader sits an ever-growing stack of work. When you finish one task, another piles on. This can be overwhelming. No one can be effective in the face of such pressure. Becoming frantically busy, catatonic or indulging in self-pity only makes the molehill grow into a mountain. Instead, break your weeks and days into small tasks. If you’re feeling particularly weighed down by fear, start with something tiny. Acknowledge every completion and every success, no matter how small. Celebrate briefly, noticing where that joy appears in your body just as you noticed the feeling of anxiety. Then, move on. Your success doesn’t define you any more than your failure.
For myself, I’ve seen time and again that if I diligently show up and do the work in a posture of faith and hope – then my heavenly Father will provide. I can rest, even in the valley, even in pitch darkness. I’m learning the secret St. Paul discovered in prison: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
This doesn’t mean I’m bulletproof, though. I can trust, rest, believe – all of those things. But sometimes nothing works. Prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. Sometimes I run through all six of the above steps, take a long bike ride, play with the kids, go surfing – and the anxiety won’t budge. Its hooks pierce my bones and churn my guts to jelly. I can’t sleep. Can’t shake the feeling of being hunted.
Most of us need therapy at some point in our lives. I’ve been on that couch and I’ll probably be there again. I’ve lived through seasons of depression and anxiety is just one of the dee-lightful perks. As for medication, a preacher once said that if he has a headache, he’ll ask God to heal him, take two ibuprofen and thank God for whichever solution works first. I couldn’t agree more – and the legalistic numbskulls who say “Christians don’t worry” or “just pray more” can take a long walk off a short pier. Of course, a pill is no panacea. But as I amend this story in August 2021, I’ve been on anxiety meds for more than 18 months and they’ve transformed my life. Combined with other factors like spiritual rituals, growing friendships and job satisfaction, anxiety barely touches me these days.
What about you? How do you put your ego in its place and find freedom from anxiety and fear? Email me to share your experience. I’d love to hear from you.