Part 1: Your Ego is Not Your Amigo

“When we die to something, something comes alive within us. If we die to self, charity comes alive; if we die to pride, service comes alive; if we die to lust, reverence for personality comes alive; if we die to anger, love comes alive.”
-Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Some things that we think are ‘good’ are good only when held together with and by something more. We live our days often thinking “well this is who I am, this is my personality.” Others and the culture in which we live reinforces this sense of self: “You do you!,” “Just be yourself!” By the time we are teenagers, our egos or false selves have gotten in the way, distorting who we think we are. I can hear you saying inside: “But I know who I am, I am a child of God!” Well I will take a guess that while you know that in your head, you do not yet know that deeply in your heart because your heart is well covered up by your ego. If your days are spent anxious or stressed, angry or unforgiving, competitive or comparing, ego is involved. For your true nature is what God made you to be, one who is happy and well, deeply capable of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. When you are not filled with those, which is quite often, you are in ego defensiveness mode. These wonderful Fruits of the Spirit are already there in you, because the Spirit dwells within you. Some things that we think are ‘good’ are good only when held together with and by something more. Let me preface this hard concept with a bit of my upbringing.

Growing Fruit

I grew up in southern California where my dad’s family were avocado ranchers. When I was a little girl I recall being really sad when I would watch young trees have their new budding branches pruned. Really sad! I was a little girl with really strong sentiment and really strong feelings with all things nature-based. And this simply made me sad, I felt the hurt of the young tree having some of its branches pruned away. Of course, it was explained to me that the tree is not really being harmed and will bear much more fruit if some of the new shoots get cut back. I suppose I understood this in my head, but it still hurt my heart every time I watched the new shoots pruned back. Little did I know what this would mean for me decades later. That my ego (my need to know and to control my plans, to show myself and others that I could do things on my own, to be strong in the face of adversity, just to name a few of my false selves) would have to be pruned and remain pruned so it would fade away and my true nature be revealed.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

When it comes to pomology (the science of growing fruit!) pruning is undertaken by cutting back a new stem or side shoots to ensure more of the tree’s nutrients go from roots to trunk to main branches so that in years’ time the tree produces more blooms and the most fruit. You can’t expect much fruiting the first few years as the plant develops stronger branches for better fruiting. Older trees have been ‘trained’ and no longer need pruning as all of their ‘goodness’ comes from the single trunk and main branches. I first reflected on this concept of pomology when I was in one of my first neuroscience classes a long time ago when we were taught the concept of ‘synaptic pruning’ or ‘the use it or lose it phenomenon’ of neural development. The thoughts you think remain so because they get connected together…and in order to change our thoughts we have to learn and practice a new one until a new connection is made and secured. If I want a thought to die away I have to prune it back and think a different thought over and over and over again. (Psalm 51:10 anyone?). This is a physical process.

While we humans are physical creatures different from fruit trees, Jesus himself spoke of the comparison in John 15. He spoke of the idea of dying to the self (ego, false self) as a requirement for greater, more beautiful growth and this imagery speaks directly to how our brains work and how our self-concept and ego develops away from our true nature.

Our True Nature

Who we are houses both what is our true nature and our ego or false self. The former a Gift to be shared and the latter shaped by all the ‘conditions of worth’ placed on us by parents, coaches, teachers, ministers, friends, media and so forth. “You are worthy if you fulfill my condition.” “I am worthy if I do not need any help.” “You will be proud if you accomplish x.” When human attributes such as pride, vanity, shame, greed, selfishness, unforgiveness, worry are not pruned back – when qualities such as our drive for freedom and what we think we ‘deserve’ are not pruned back – when our sense of individualism separate from our common collective humanity isn’t trimmed – we show less and less of the true love, joy, peace that’s already within. And when we combine this lack of pruning with the coming years in our lives, we often become more self-righteous, more rigid, more prideful, and more controlling. No matter how much we believe in God.

My time living overseas allowed me the space to reflect on how we are formed and shaped away from our true nature. What was being pruned from me during my 40s were seemingly ‘good’ attributes, qualities often ascribed as being healthy and positive – I was extremely strong and persevering, I was happy despite the harshness by finding beauty where I could, I was confident and secure in myself, I believed I was being the person God was asking me to be. In remarkable fashion even those seemingly ‘good shoots’ needed pruning so they could have their energy redirected toward something more fruit-bearing.

My ego was still in the way! I still had conditions I needed to fulfill in order for me to feel wholly worthy. I still thought I deserved certain benefits and was to be protected from certain harms. Ego feels pride when it can fulfill x condition and feels shame when it cannot. Ego feels pride when it can better or at least match others and feels shame when it cannot. But I was not allowing that knowledge to reshape my heart because I was not yet truly open to the movement of Love in my life. Little shoots of “Heidi” would continue to emerge for my old way of relating and interacting would keep coming out. At inner subconscious levels pride and shame keep us tied to our egos and unsurrendered to the Spirit within, we really do want to take the credit for our showing love, joy, peace…I sure know I did! But the second I desire to take any amount of credit that little shoot of Heidi would re-emerge. Until the idea of pruning circled back for me. Our true inner nature is already wholly, completely, and unalterably worthy and okay! You might know this in your head like I did, but ego gets in the way of you knowing it deeply in your heart because it requires deep, reckless pruning and a dying to the parts of the self that house our ego and false self.

Part 2 comes out Wednesday! Check back!

Copyright 2020 Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett is a native born Californian (Santa Barbara to be exact!) who made her way to Iowa after earning a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from the University of California in 1996. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa, Heidi began teaching at Drake University in 2000. That was also the year, at age 30, she was baptized Catholic alongside her first newly born son. Heidi is married to Joe and they have two sons.