The Self, Self-Esteem, and Dying to Self: Contemplative Spirituality and the Ego

The Self, Self-Esteem, and Dying to Self: Contemplative Spirituality and the Ego July 25, 2018
Photo by Adam Birkett, courtesy Unsplash.

A reader of this blog named John wrote to me a while back and asked this question:

In your opinion, what role does self worth play in faith and from where does self worth come?

Since it’s a broad question, I wrote back to him to get a bit of clarification. In my response, I wrote:

Many of us learn not to love ourselves, thanks to the toxicity of our culture and the fact that so many families are wounded. Meanwhile, we live in a culture that promotes narcissism, and I think too many people equate self-worth with narcissism, so that is a parallel issue.

So when we talk about self-worth it needs to happen in a context of humility, a sense of humor, and gratitude. Perhaps even the word “worth” is problematic as it recalls too much our cultural obsession with wealth and value. You can’t put a price on love, as they say; likewise, what we are “worth” at least in God’s eyes, is infinite.

The Sermon on the Mount is very helpful here. Also: ‘love your neighbors as you love yourself.” Self-worth is measured by how much we love and care for others. And our love for self is only as great as our love for others. Whenever a person is too much self-focussed or too much others-focussed, something is out of joint.

John then offered me a more in-depth question (edited here for clarity and brevity):

We have been conditioned to acquire, accomplish and earn our worth through faith in Jesus, being a good Christian, getting that promotion, etc. The only problem is that these are not sources of self worth. By definition self worth comes from inside us.

The reason why people are narcissistic is because they don’t know the soul and thus cannot feel their own value. Narcissism is an overcompensation mechanism for inner emptiness and worthlessness. For instance, people are desperately hanging onto belief in Jesus because they are afraid of what would happen if they were to let go. They would be forced to face what is infinite and eternal which includes the emptiness and the resulting feelings of worthlessness. That emptiness is actually the doorway to the soul but people avoid it like the plague.

Yes we need to be humble but notice how the personality prevents us from knowing and feeling our infinite eternal value. It tries to diminish us…

John’s ideas are interesting, and he is not afraid to suggest that religion can be just as much part of the problem as our materialistic/narcissistic/entertainment-obsessed society is.

Not Enough Self-Love, Too Much Self-Love, Letting Go of Self-Love

I’m currently reading Joel Harrington’s fascinating biography of Meister Eckhart, Dangerous Mystic. Harrington does a wonderful job at presenting the complexities of Eckhart’s thought, steeped as it is in medieval scholasticism and the intricacies of Dominican theology, in an accessible and inviting way. He charts the story of Eckhart’s remarkable career as a priest and scholar, leading to a laudable effort to make mystical theology available to the ordinary non-scholarly Christian through his sermons — an initiative that eventually resulted in Eckhart facing accusations of heresy.

Among other things, Eckhart insists that “The final and perhaps greatest barrier to the divine birth within was the self, what we would today call the ego.” He goes on to say, invoking St. Augustine, “God is closer to me than I am to myself: my being depends on God’s being near me and present to me.” Eckhart’s theology of radical detachment and letting-go correlates nicely with John’s insistence that those who embrace letting-go “would be forced to face what is infinite and eternal which includes the emptiness and the resulting feelings of worthlessness. That emptiness is actually the doorway to the soul but people avoid it like the plague.”

We seem to be in the land of paradox. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and yet to recognize that God-given union, we must let go of the very soul which clamors for our attention. But that feels like dying. Furthermore, many of us — especially those who grew up in a Christian setting — often suffer from poor self-esteem, as our culture taught us that pride is a sin, the self is the enemy, and the only way to trust God is by simultaneously mistrusting one’s self.

If spiritual liberation requires “dying to self,” we need a healthy self to die to. Many of us — especially people who have lacked social, economic, or political privilege — need to experience affirming the self before we can creatively (and spiritually) surrender the self.

And yet, if we are not careful, self-affirmation can collapse into narcissism, or into addiction, or even into a kind of stupefied numbness, if we accept the social fiction that the self is all there is.

I think the key to a creative spirituality of the self is learning to recognize the difference between hating one’s self and simply letting-go of the self. True humility is not a matter of hatred, but rather a kind of gentle self-forgetfulness. C.S. Lewis is supposed to have remarked that the point behind humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.

Narcissism is really self-hatred in inverted form. Excessive self-love is a mirror image of self-hatred or self-denigration. Whether we are narcissists or self-haters, we need to learn gentle, balanced, and healthy ways of relating to ourselves, which includes affirming ourselves and loving ourselves while simultaneously maintaining appropriate boundaries. It’s good to feel good about being me, but when “feeling good about being me” becomes a cover for addictive, abusive or selfish behavior, it has tumbled over from self-care into narcissism.

And then, as we grow into a healthy sense of self? The ultimate plot twist: we are asked to give it up. Not to hate it, not to neglect it, not to denigrate it. Simply to give it up: for the sake of a greater love, a higher joy, a deeper peace.

But many of us are nowhere near that place, so perhaps most of us shouldn’t worry about that for now. First things first. If you dislike yourself, learn to love yourself. If you are self-obsessed, learn good boundaries. And then — and only then — does it become creative and exciting to embrace the journey of forgetting about yourself.

Because that journey leads to remembering something even more exciting.

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