Mary Karr’s new book on memoir begins with this epigraph from Thomas Merton. It is about the false self we all carry with us. It is amazing.

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. I wind my experiences around myself and cover myself with glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed, I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me I am my own mistake.

il_570xN.609349121_ob8sThe whole essay from Seeds of Contemplation, called “We Are One Man,” is amazing. Merton talks about the “disease of spiritual pride,” the innate, ambitious vision we see our selves becoming. This disease, Merton argues, puts each of us in a battle of assertion with the rest of the world. We try to impress the significance of “me” by distinguishing it from every other “me” out there.

This sounds like a primal psychological description of humankind after the Fall, but Merton clearly emphasizes that this description fits most aptly with those who are religious. And not just in principle, but in deed.

He thinks his own pride is the Holy Ghost. The sweet warmth of pleasure becomes the criterion of all his works. The relish he savors in acts that make him admirable in his own eyes, drives him to fast, or to pray, or to hide in solitude, or to write many books, or to build churches and hospitals, or to start a thousand organizations. And when they succeed he thinks his sense of satisfaction is the unction of the Holy Spirit. And the secret voice of pleasure sings in his heart: “Non sum sicut caeteri homines.”

That Latin is the Pharisee’s prayer, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men.” This pride Merton describes is the pride of the man who left the temple unjustified. This stubbornness is hard to come back from on one’s own: “It is a terrible thing when such a one gets the idea he is a prophet or a messenger of God or a man with a mission to reform the world.”

This is hard to hear, because I’m certainly a world reformer in recovery. I still love the sound of the big-deal “me” I am going to be one day.

It was the psychologist Karl Jung that developed the idea of there being “two halves of life.” During the first half of life, in our younger years, there is a central focus on the development of the self—the self who is secure, purposeful, in control. Freud would call this the “ego” self, the self that continually strives to maintain a balance between the passions (the id) and the policies (the super-ego). This time of life has a focus on growth, development, and ascendancy, and so the natural obsessions revolve around ambition, moral stringency, and a life of “balance.”

The second half of life, on the other hand, sounds a lot like the deconstruction of this self. As we watch people around us get sick or die, or experience strings of failures ourselves, our ascendant picture of ourselves is stripped from what really makes up “me.” Jung said this about his own ego after facing illness:

It was only after the illness that I understood how important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then, to experience defeat is also to experience victory.

Invisible_ManThis is one of the insights that Bill Wilson brought into AA. Wilson was a pretty big fan of Karl Jung. As a twentysomething, I don’t know. I certainly find myself attached to the ascendant version of me. Many of my thoughts revolve around questions of vocation, moral clarity, and social stability. Many of my temperamental interests/obsessions betray a longing for some clearly defined trajectory—a defined sense of purpose and meaning. Many of my conversations with my peers surround these topics, too.

I can’t speak for the sixtysomething, but I have hard time believing that his or her ascendant ego isn’t still in there somewhere, too. I think Paul said so, and Merton certainly believed so.

But I also think that Jesus was continually pulling his friends down from the mountain. If I’m honest, Jesus’ way is the way of the second self. Throughout scripture, Jesus is constantly pulling camels through the eye of a needle; devastating the illusions of a person, to make them small enough to fit. Just think of the Rich Young Ruler. Richard Rohr describes it like this, that an encounter with God

resituates the self inside of a safe universe where you don’t need to be special, rich, or famous to feel alive. Those questions are resolved once and for all. The hall of mirrors that most people live in becomes unhelpful and even bothersome. Now aliveness comes from the inside out. This is what we mean when we say “God saves you.”

The way of humility, which is also the way of the Cross, seems to be the way through the needle. The way of the cross is the way to one’s true self, too. A self that is stripped and poor and naked of its glorified bandages. This is a hard truth to accept, though: in spending a life engineering one’s own significance, it is nearly impossible to accept all the daily reminders to the contrary. Aging may help, but I need my “me” to be killed.