You can do admirable things but you will never be the faultless person you think you are until you learn to forget yourself. In fact, despite all the good things you think you’ve done, you may still be a selfish, self-centered person and have a heart filled with fear, pride, or a desire for power.
That’s the theme of a book Samantha Ponder recently called “life changing” on an Instagram post. Her name may not ring a bell with many of you so let me introduce her: she’s a celebrated and respected reporter for ESPN and she’s married to Oakland Raider Matt Ponder. The book, however, has nothing to do with football. It has to do with pride, egos, competitiveness, and being focused on yourself. I had no idea what the book was about and was curious when I saw her post so I bought it.
Personally, I was surprised and impressed that Ponder, a talented, successful, and beautiful TV personality, is determined she is not going to become another arrogant and flawed public figure and she is not going to let her fans’ adulation feed her ego in harmful ways. Hash tag Ponder gets it. And before you think, “Oh that’s not me. I’m not famous and I’m not self-centered or proud,” read on. You may be surprised.
The book, called “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness” by Timothy Keller, is a mere 44 pages long but packs a true eye-opening punch. In a way, it compares Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to our lives as we live them today and in doing so inspires us to become people who don’t lust for recognition, don’t focus on “hitting self-esteem home-runs,” and don’t daydream about successes that give us an edge over others. Do your best to be successful but not at the expense of others or just to be impressive. Don’t “just do it,” do it for the right reasons.
Keller says it all begins with pride, ego, and humility. The three are not mutually exclusive. When someone does something good or noble, they shouldn’t feel like they have “checked their box” and are done, as if to say “you shouldn’t expect anything more from me.” According to Keller and to Paul, we are never done and should always keep fighting the fight and making the effort. We should never become complacent and so proud of our accomplishments that we consider ourselves too good and too accomplished to see our many other faults and areas that need attention or improvement.
The Price of Pride
Keller says that the source of most divisions is pride and boasting. Pride destroys the ability to have any real pleasures because we are never truly satisfied. We are not proud of being successful, smart, or good-looking, we are only proud of being more of all those than the next person. Plus, when we are proud of something we’ve done, it often prevents us from working just as hard on something else. We are a “one and done” society that is often too quick to pat ourselves on the back.
In his chapter on pride in “Mere Christianity, author C.S. Lewis said virtually the same thing years ago, writing that if you were to meet a truly humble person, you wouldn’t say to yourself, “wow, he’s a really humble guy” because the person wouldn’t talk about himself or his humble state. If he did, Lewis says, that person would not be humble but very self-obsessed. Instead, what we get from a truly humble person is how much they seem totally interested in us.
Lewis also writes that pride is by nature competitive and that “pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next person. If everyone became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about.”
Humility is what Paul says we should instead strive for and Lewis agrees, saying, “The essence of humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” Get over yourself, your accomplishments, your wealth, your status, your anything. This is where Paul says an examination of self-esteem comes in.
Until the 20th century, most cultures believed too high a view of yourself was the root of most evil. Oddly, today we often think the opposite and believe people misbehave because of a lack of self-esteem. This is starting to change though, as generations of narcissistic kids (and adults!) are making us look twice at just how confident we need to be and should be.
This hits home for me as I was adamant about raising Kristen with lots of self-esteem, something I didn’t have growing up. To this day our mantra is “Believe in yourself” and I’m proud (happy?!) that she’s got it. I’ve also always loved the photo above and any depiction of it as it says, “I can do and be anything.” I’ve learned however that, as with anything, too much of a good thing is not always a good thing and that humility goes a long way.
It’s been a long-held belief that a confident person will be more successful and vice versa, but a few years ago psychologist Lauren Slater found that there is no evidence that low self-esteem is a big problem in society and agreed with other studies that “people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem.” Ouch.
Leggo Your Ego
Keller notes that Paul urges us to have no more pride in one person over another, which brings in something even more powerful than even self-esteem: ego. “He’s got such a huge ego” is not usually said in a flattering way and yet we all basically work on creating what Keller calls a “self-esteem resume.” It is what our egos do all the time: try to make ourselves look better than others but Paul says the condition of the natural human ego is empty, painful, busy, and fragile. He uses the word “physioo” for ego, which literally means overinflated, swollen and distended beyond repair. Yikes. Sound like someone you know?
Our ego is empty because it is “puffed up” but has nothing in its center. It is empty because it is never satisfied; never “full.” The tendency is to try to fill something that’s empty and with our ego, we fill it with things that make us look good but in the end they don’t make us feel all that good.
It is painful because it is distended and swollen from all that pressure inside and because deep down it knows all is not perfect and well. Years ago I learned that “feelings are never wrong” and in Keller’s book I learned that it’s not our feelings that get hurt, it’s our ego. Think about it. Regardless of how confident you think you are, egos are always feeling snubbed or ignored in some way. They are never happy.
An ego, Keller adds, is also incredibly busy because it is forever comparing and boasting, one-upping and bragging. At its core though, an ego is envious, but envy makes us blind to our blessings because we are instead consumed with what we don’t have or who we’re not. The result of envy is sorrow. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? Instead, maybe try to enjoy and appreciate things that aren’t about YOU!
“The only cure for envy is happiness but the difficulty is that envy is a terrible obstacle to happiness.”
Lastly, the ego is fragile because anything that is overinflated is in constant danger of being deflated. Our egotistic bubbles burst open and out come being disappointed and feelings of unworthiness. Our desire for self-worth will never fulfilled because our ego is basically an insatiable black hole.
Not a way to live, right? How about instead turning our focus away from us. Let yourself go. For real.
Don’t Judge Me
And yet, as self-deflating as it may be, we search high and low for that verdict and stamp of approval. We care so much about what others think. Not Paul though. His identity was not tied to what the Corinthians thought of him and reminds us that God’s opinion is really the only one we should care about. “I don’t care what you think. I don’t even care what I think. I only care about what the Lord thinks,” he told his Corinth audience. We can say this just like Paul did. (If I remember correctly, Coco Chanel said something very similar but that’s a whole other blog!)
But he also warns us that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of focusing and relying on our own standards at the risk of becoming self-centered. Thinking too highly of ourselves is a dangerous road to take, as Paul proclaimed, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.” Keller powerfully supports this by saying Hitler may have had a clear conscience, but that does not mean he was innocent.
We can all fall into the self-esteem resume trap. When we think of ourselves as “bad,” we sometimes lose self-confidence and when we do something good, our ego gets inflated.
But Paul doesn’t see his accomplishments as reasons to congratulate himself and he doesn’t connect his identity to his sins. Amazingly, Paul reaches a place where he doesn’t think of himself at all; a liberating place Keller refers to as “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness.” Huh?
Yep, it may be hard to do but we can start by letting go of the “what’s in it for me” motto and forget about feeding our pride, boosting our egos, and needing constant approval and accolades. A truly humble person thinks of her ego the same way she thinks about her toes: they don’t draw attention to themselves. They just do their job. Our job is to work on not putting ourselves first. We are third.
If you let go of your ego and become a self-forgetful person, criticism won’t hurt you because you no longer place immense value on what other people think. You don’t like my opinion? Then don’t listen to it. You don’t respect me? Well that says more about you than it does about me. Non-egotistical people hear criticism and see it as a possible opportunity to change. This is where I see a challenge, as I’m a very sensitive person and opinionated person and often take things waaaaay too personally. I’m working on it though. Pinky swear.
The Verdict is In
We, like Paul, are looking for that ultimate verdict that states we are important and valuable. We search for it every day and in every situation. We look for it in the people around us. This means that every single day we are on trial! We put ourselves in what Keller calls “the courtroom of validation.” No wonder we are stressed and unhappy and feel like we have to prove ourselves.
In Christianity, as opposed to most religions in which performance comes before a verdict, thanks to Jesus we receive our verdicts before our performance! He went on trial for us and was sentenced for us. He took the punishment we deserve so now it’s time for us to leave that courtroom, forget ourselves, and perform on the basis of that verdict. Because God loves me and accepts me, I don’t do good things to boost up my resume or make myself look better than others, I do them because I want to and actually long to. There is no need to fill up an emptiness because I am full of love. Don’t put yourself on trial anymore. Get over yourself. Court is adjourned.