I’ve been re-reading two favorite books of mine in recent weeks: Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and Parker J. Palmer’s The Active Life.
As is so often the case with me, I have long understood intellectually the concepts they present, but have struggled to apply them in any practical sense in everyday life. That’s a problem, I think, too, with respect to our understanding and practice of what Jesus tried to teach us. The paradox is that the very concept I’m talking about is also the culprit for why it is difficult to connect the dots.
The concept I’m referring to is what I believe Jesus meant when he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves…For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16:24-26, NRSV)
Deny my “self.” Hmmm…There’s a lot of confusion about what that passage possibly means, some of which is the fault of psychologists and educators and pastors who come from different “operational definitions” of the word “self.” Too often we compare apples to oranges. When I talk about my “self esteem,” for example, I’m referring to “soul esteem,” i.e., holding in reverence the “authentic” me, that chip-off-the-old-block child of God “me.”
I don’t believe that’s the “self” Christ tells me to deny. The self He referred to is what I call the “hologram” of me, the “ego” (another word subject to the confusion of different definitions), the often “inauthentic” me who is defined exclusively by the world. That “me” is the sum total of the projections of parents, friends, teachers, employers, employees, opponents, enemies, governments, you name it. Its identity and sense of self-value varies wildly based on what happens to it and whether what happens to it hurts or feels good (which also feeds its ideas about what is “good” and what is “evil”).
If I remember that it’s the hologram who is talking when I’m upset or even ecstatic and that those feelings have nothing to do with the “real” me, it’s amazing how much better I feel about myself. Keeping those two separate in my mind is the key. But one lives exclusively in the kingdom of heaven, and the other exclusively in the world, and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how to exist in both at the same time. “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. Boy, was He ever right about that.
Of course, the ideal situation would be if the world was the kingdom of heaven, because then, the ego, that “hologram” of me, wouldn’t even exist. I would always be who I truly am, you would always be who you truly are, and nothing that ever “happened” would have the slightest impact on how much of a treasure each of us is to God or each other. But that’s the ideal situation, as I said, and not the reality. Knowing that, I need to make it my responsibility not only to be who I am, no matter what, but to remind my friends and loved ones, when they really need it, of who they are.
A couple of years ago, a good friend’s nine-year-old granddaughter had a freak accident that snapped a major tendon in her ankle, and she faced a surgery to try and repair it. No one knew for sure what would happen—there was a chance that it would, but there was also a chance that she would never again walk without a pronounced limp. It was the night before the surgery and Grace, an aspiring ballerina, was restless. She turned to her grandmother, who was sitting with her while her parents grabbed a bite to eat.
“Grandma,” she asked, “what if, in the morning when I wake up, I can’t walk?”
My friend thought for a moment and, rather than trying to reassure her that it wouldn’t happen, answered the real question her precious granddaughter was asking by asking her a question in return.
“Who are you?”
The child, confused for a second, shrugged her shoulders. “Grace,” she said.
“And in the morning,” said her grandmother, “when you wake up, whether you can walk or not, who will you be?”
The child smiled and within minutes, drifted to sleep. She was Grace then, and she would be Grace the next day and the day after that, no matter what happened.
God, I wish we could all remember that.