The human ego is a thing of wonder. We need it in order for us to achieve our goals and to be successful at what we do; we need to believe that we are worth it, that our efforts are worth it, and that we deserve good in this life. Otherwise, without this sense of ‘entitlement’ (for lack of a better word), we may run the risk of under-achieving, of slacking, because we don’t have enough pride in ourselves and our efforts to do our best at it.
On the flip side, however, this same human ego that we need in order for us to be successful at what we do, can be the very cause of our downfall. If our egos get too big, and we start having an exaggerated sense of entitlement, believing that we deserve the best, or that we are the best, for whatever misguided reason, then this is when our egos become our enemies — as the popular phrase goes: ‘I’m my own worst enemy’, and, in essence, this is what happens when we do ourselves the disfavour of allowing ourselves to believe that we are great and awesome, and that we are above the rest. Because, one day, when Disappointment, Sadness, Hurt and Failure inevitably come knocking at our doors (even if we try to ignore them and hope they go away), we will be ill-equipped to handle them, because we wouldn’t have expected these unwelcome visitors to push down the door and make themselves comfortable in our lives. We will be too caught up with our self-image, our own sense of entitlement, our belief that ‘these bad things can’t happen to me, it’s not fair!’
So where do we draw the line between a ‘healthy’ ego and an ‘unhealthy’ one? How do we keep self-confidence from turning into self-pride? I don’t assume to know all the answers, but I would like to take a guess and say that the key is humility. But what is humility, really? Is it shyly looking away when someone gives you a compliment? Is it outwardly downplaying your achievements and success so that people don’t think you’re too proud of yourself, while inwardly, you really are?
I once knew a man who would often reflect on particular situations he had found himself in, where he was in a position to exert his ‘power’ or ‘status’, but had chosen not to, and he would say about it: “…and I was so humble.” Uhm, excuse me? Do you attempt to proclaim your own humility?
C.S. Lewis once said:
If a man thinks he is not conceited, he is very conceited indeed.
It is almost as though Lewis had said that quote about this particular person because he is certainly the embodiment of it. No person who claims to be humble is truly humble, for indeed, true humility is not pronounced by its bearer. True humility is manifest in all one’s actions, even in one’s non-actions.
One dictionary defines humility as:
…(having a) modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance (or) rank.
While another says:
It is the opposite of aggressiveness, arrogance, boastfulness, and vanity.
If this is what it means to be humble, if we were to practice true humility within ourselves, sincerely thinking modestly of ourselves and our level of importance, then surely, when Disappointment, Rejection and their friends come to visit us, we will be able to invite them into our humble homes, serve them with grace and dignity, and perhaps even invite another Friend over to join the party, and that Friend will really turn things around for us, making the sting of Disappointment and the gang hurt a lot less — that friend is the Almighty, the Most-Merciful. When we realise that nothing is in our control to begin with, that it is all in His Decree — whether I got rejected by that person, or humiliated myself in front of another person, or lost the respect of someone else through some human mistake I’ve made — then we realise that there is no sense in lamenting over it and in beating ourselves up about it, because why would we want to hurt ourselves even further? Why would we want to be our own enemies? And if we rely on the solace and comfort of our Most-Merciful and Most Compassionate Creator, then we have found the Best Comfort, the Best Friend.
So, it is not enough to only act humble, we have to be it, too.
The spiritual warrior is he who breaks an idol; and the idol of each person is his ego.
-Imam Abul Qasim al-Qushayri