The ego is another name for the evil spirit—or at least they’re bedfellows. This is an important truth to understand if you wish to grow in the spiritual life. The ego, as we culturally define it, is really our self-importance. This is the realm of the evil spirit. Ignatian spirituality tells us that the evil spirit draws us away from God and neighbour and toward ourselves. The good spirit, on the other hand, moves us beyond ourselves toward the love of God and neighbour. Jesus was clever in saying that everything boiled down to the Greatest Commandment: Love God and love neighbour as yourself. When we are in the flow of the good spirit, we are living out this commandment. When we are in the grips of the evil spirit, we are not.
The Ego’s Job
We see the ego operating within ourselves and others all the time. The ego’s job is to protect our self-importance and the image of ourselves as being superior to others. A common example is in traffic. Imagine all these little egos driving their cars, rushing to where they need to be. When I am simply moving with the traffic and the car in front of me, I’m doing fine. I’m just with everyone else in a common mission to get to the destination. But when the car behind me tailgates me I feel my ego getting into battle position, ready to have it out with the ego impatiently operating the car behind me. “Where are they rushing to? Why do they think they’re so important?” And when that person shifts lanes to try and overtake me, my ego tells me to push the gas a little harder and teach the other ego a lesson: they will not get in front of me and deface my superior position. What ends up happening is the other vehicle gets perhaps one car ahead, not making the progress they’d hoped. My ego feels good about this and when I later pass them in another lane, restoring my superior position, my ego feels even better.
There is nothing neighbourly about this scenario.
Beyond traffic, the ego has a primary role in many of the social problems we face as a world: from wars between tribes to racism and xenophobia, from nationalism and unjust food distribution to arguments about mask-wearing and personal liberties. Consider how many problems in the world are caused by a sense of egoic superiority, whether it’s individual or group superiority. I’m better. We’re superior. As Mother Teresa said, we have forgotten we belong to each other.
When we acknowledge we are brothers and sisters in a common human family who belong to each other, we step outside of our ego’s protection of our self-importance. We care about the value of the other and we begin living into the Greatest Commandment. The good spirit attempts to keep us on a trajectory toward God where we transcend our small selves and find ourselves part of something larger than what our ego would like us to think. Yet when the evil spirit is the dominant force, the trajectory toward God curves back toward ourselves and we become self-absorbed. It’s seldom a simple reverse course. The subtly of the evil spirit would rather have us on a slow curve back toward the ego, that way it’s not as apparent or noticeable.
Freud tells us that the ego is part of our personality, perhaps a necessary evil, helping us function in the reality of the world. But as psychologist Ian Cron once said, “Your personality shows up when your true self doesn’t.” The word personality comes from the Latin persona, which means a mask, like actors would wear in ancient Roman theatre. The personality, which includes the ego, is simply a set of posturing mechanisms, responses, and reactions to what the world expects us to be. In fact, Freud spoke of the ego operating from the “reality principle”, meaning it governs our responses based on what the outer world might expect or dictate. Sometimes that means, especially for the male, to allow anger to be the dominant emotion, or to use violence to maintain a position of power. It can mean belittling others to—ironically—maintain my sense of moral superiority. These are all evil spirit responses, creating a mask over the true self. The evil spirit protects the ego. The good spirit protects what’s good and true, even if that truth may damage our ego.
We see the ego play out in marriage, friendships, family relationships, and between nations. No one is immune to its power. This is why it takes the hard work of growing in self-awareness to counteract the nudging of the evil spirit.
Transcending the Ego
In his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, Ignatius says that when we find ourselves drifting from God and curving back on ourselves we actively need to take measures to shift the focus from ourselves to others. We move outside of our egos by intentionally caring for others more, offering a kind word, exercising patience, or spending time with people we care about. These things are risks to our ego because they can raise doubts or fears—a common characteristic of the evil spirit. What if my kindness to someone means I might befriend them? What if taking the time to listen to another takes me away from other things I care about? What if someone else’s beliefs challenge my own?
The ego lives in a dualistic place where it’s “my way or the highway.” Anything that challenges the ego appears to be a threat to one’s entire world. The good spirit, and I might add Jesus’ whole mission, was to break down these false worlds we’ve built up, the false security systems and masks, and see the larger truth: that there is a love that undergirds all the connections of creation. All the groups who fight for dominance, the siblings who fight over inheritance, those of varying political factions, governments that exploit the marginalised, the nations who compete to be the ‘best’, and the people driving next to us on the highway, are all part of the same fabric, connected to one another and to one source: the Weaver who wishes to maintain the integrity of the fabric. Just one hole, one stray thread, can begin to unravel the whole thing. As Jesus said, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made” (Mark 2:21).
As I see my children face the reality of humanity, I sometimes find myself ashamed at humanity’s blindness, at the ways the ego controls so many of us. Yet humanity has done some extraordinary things. Those extraordinary things occur when the true self emerges, when we are in the flow of the good spirit, transcending the ego and moving toward Love. We put aside our egos when we realise that life is not about my thread, but the whole fabric – and that repairing the fabric affects me too. Your agenda is my agenda. Your wellbeing is my wellbeing. Then we’re finally on a trajectory toward God.
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