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 your body’s internal combustion is supported by food and the vital heat is conserved by clothing and shelter, 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 to consider things like purpose, calling, 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 blessing. But countless opportunities for gratitude go floating by each day as we strain after more and more things that we supposedly need. There is 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. You and I are not entitled to peace, happiness, or abundance, though countless voices tell us otherwise. We certainly have the right, and should be free to pursue these good and wholesome things. It is wrong to willfully withhold them from law-abiding citizens. Our basic rights are inalienable; this is why society begins to break down when they are trampled. But outside of legal semantics, rights and entitlements are not the same thing. Our belief that a certain level of privilege is owed to us 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 our ontological questions have not yet been addressed?
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.
The kingdom of being
This false self is the mask, the parody of personhood, that the ego tries to create. Ego and personality are deeply linked. Various definitions of personality abound, but I would describe it as a person’s particular brand of brokenness and glory. Personality is both a tool that helps us navigate life in an imperfect world, and a limitation that narrows our worldview.
Most psychologists agree that one’s personality is part nature and part nurture. It is an addition to the essential self, i.e. the soul. 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 cannot shed them or change them at a fundamental level, and it is futile to try. As 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 be reduced to a manageable size. From that place, we identify and discard our illusions and start to see the world as it really is.
When I see that nothing is an entitlement, every moment, every breath, every crumb is a gift that I receive with gratitude. As I appreciate more, I strive less. This is when I start to work smarter, rather than harder. I begin to get clear about just how much effort is required in order to live, grow, and serve. From that serene vantage point, I can see just how falsely dualistic the notion of work/life balance is. 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 one is neglected, the other two areas suffer. When I am attentive to all areas of my 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 more coherent. I will become what I was made to be: a human being, not merely a human doing.
But when we believe the lie that society owes us a laundry list of entitlements, we never have enough. We are 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, and clothes, 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 my life is managed by ego, I can amass all the wealth in the world yet never enjoy any of it. And if I believe that I can create a meaningful, viable career 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 run 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 is 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, our lives will be characterized by desperation.
From anxiety to rest
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 anxiety 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 total destruction.
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 especially hard for me to simply accept. My family’s wellbeing depends on my ability to generate income, and that income can vary a lot from month to month. I’m learning that in times of anxiety, four things will see me through. I invite you to try these things, or your own version of them.
1. See the anxiety, name it, and 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. If you pray, ask God for the courage to feel and discernment to see what grace is intended in this season of discomfort. Recognize your desire for control and to simply get past the pain. Know that pain is necessary for growth, and do not try to rush through it. Release your need for control and security. This is an emotion, it will pass, and it does not define you.
2. 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, there have been many times when a project or a check came just in the nick of time. 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 brokenness to redemption.
3. Practice mindfulness.
Identifying the ego and its projects is a lifelong process, but you can begin today by paying attention to where your energy is drawn and gently questioning your motives. Write down any observations that come you. Ego projects are compulsive, almost mindless. These are the things we do when living on autopilot, and the unhealthy ways we handle pain or stress. By practicing mindfulness through meditation, journaling, and contemplative prayer, we begin to see the ego’s projects and can then make a conscious choice to pursue or reject them. For myself, ego projects often take the form of ineffectual perfectionism. These are things I do to make myself feel wholesome and acceptable. This is when I get bogged down in details, over-complicate my work and my life, and waste time, money, and energy on activities that serve no one. A point comes when I have to stop asking myself how something can be made better, and instead ask whether it’s simply good enough. This is a daily struggle for me.
4. Get to work on the real work.
In front of any entrepreneur or leader sits an ever-growing mountain of work. When one task is done, another piles on. This can be overwhelming. No one can be effective in the face of such pressure. Becoming catatonic or indulging in self pity only makes the mountain grow taller. Instead, break your weeks and days into small tasks. If you’re feeling particularly weighed down by fear, start with something very small. Acknowledge every completion and every little success. Celebrate it briefly, noticing where that joy arises in your body just as you noticed the feeling of anxiety. Then, move on. Your success does not define you any more than your failure.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
– Matthew 10:29–31
For myself, I have seen time and again that if I diligently show up and do the work – balancing business development and creative output (and that is a very hard but not impossible balance to find) – then my heavenly Father will see that my family’s needs are met. If I am bringing good, true, beautiful, just, and wholesome things into being by my work, I can trust that we will be clothed and fed. I can finally rest.
What about you? How do you put your ego in its place and find freedom from anxiety? Email me to share your experience. I’d love to hear from you.
Like what you just read? Sign up for Love Letters, my monthly email, and I’ll deliver my next story straight to your inbox.