“That’s enough about me… what do you think about me?” When this old joke is offered in a conversation, it usually elicits a good amount of nervous laughter. It’s likely that we laugh because we somehow feel exposed. If we are honest, thoughts like “That’s enough about me… what do you think about me?” circle through our heads fairly often. We are, largely, focused on us… and when we focus on others, it’s usually in relation to us in some way.
Some might say we live in a self-obsessed society. Comedian Jim Gaffigan paints a humorous picture of this in commenting on the installation of large mirrors in his gym. He quips that now he can look at himself while working on himself while leafing through his copy of Self magazine. Again, the nervous laughter.
Those graced with addictive personalities have no monopoly on this kind of self-centeredness; it is meted out to all of us in our culture in relatively even amounts. However, those of us in recovery know that our very lives hinge on extracting ourselves from the quicksand of self-obsession. Yet while this self-obsession may not lead to “jails, institutions, or death” (BB) for those disinclined to addiction, it does lead to the very same internal misery and dissatisfaction.
The paradox is that the more we exclusively focus on ourselves and on achieving our individual happiness, the more miserable we become. Let’s explore again the saying of Jesus we engaged last time: [Jesus said,] “Those who would save their lives would lose it, and those who lose their lives on account of Me will save them (get exact).” Last time we looked at this quote in relation to how “losing” unhealthy patterns of response (character defects) helps a healthier self emerge.
Today we can go one step further and say that to “save” our lives we must lose not only our negative patterns but our self-obsession in general (the two are related, though distinct). But without self-focused work, how can we grow or change? Again, this seems like a paradox: if someone tells us, “do not think about a pink elephant!” we of course immediately think of the pink elephant! And the self looms larger in our minds than the most massive of elephants.
Spiritual traditions deal with this paradox in different ways. Some advocate the total eradication of a sense of self. These traditions tend to be ancient ones, and ask us to fully dis-identify with our personalities and mental/emotional processes. A true engagement of such methods is particularly difficult for Western seekers, and can even provoke a harmful inner crisis. Further, it can lead to quietism, which our world today really can’t afford.
On the other extreme, some voices in spirituality—often modern ones—deal with the issue of self-obsession by baptizing it. These voices portray spirituality as the means of cajoling “the universe” into giving us what our ego wants, as if we were its center and our wish list the highest agenda of the Divine. Prettied up by a thin varnish of “spiritual” language, these methods don’t seek to liberate us from our slavery to our cravings and self-obsession. Rather, they seek to have us think the whole universe is meant to join us in bondage. The result? A sharp increase in our inner misery.
In recovery spirituality, we tread a happy middle ground between negation of the self and obsession with the self. We do work and pray for changes in ourselves, but not for ourselves. For example, let’s look at one of the suggested prayers in the book Alcoholics Anonymous:
God, I offer myself to Thee, to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life (italics mine).
The context of the requests within the prayer is service to God and others. Our step work is not about getting what we want; our step work changes us into what God wants. And as a side benefit, happiness comes to us… and continues to come in greater amounts as we move more deeply into working the Steps.
The step associated with this prayer (the third step) asks us to make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” What does it mean to turn our will (our thinking and psychological constructs) and our lives (our actions and patterns of behavior) over to “the care of God”? Some interpret this to mean that we shift our reference. We no longer turn our will and lives over to the small project of caring for the wish-list of the grasping, egoic self; the “care of God” represents a new framework, what we can call the “context of God.” If God (and the virtues associated with the nature of God) is our context for choices rather than self-referent gratification, I begin to choose to do the next right thing, whether or not this choice serves my self-centered ends.
We find something greater than catering to the petulant demands of our self-centeredness. We learn to live out of spiritual principles and become free from slavery to the ego. This is a pretty good definition of integrity. And, counter to our cultural narrative, we find that life lived in integrity—even when integrity “costs” us—brings more happiness, peace, and power than getting everything we want and controlling everyone we know!
This move from self-obsession to a life of happiness and service is an organic process. There is no one “great moment” (at least for most of us) where we step out of the prison of self-gratification and self-obsession and suddenly lose the fear, anxiety, bitterness, and suffering associated with the self-absorbed life. Rather, bit by bit, as we clear the wreckage of our past, allow our character defects to be removed, practice humility (more on that in a future installment!) and begin to be of service to others, we notice one day that somehow, somewhere, the tight grip on “me” has loosened, and with this loosening has come not only relief from anxiety but true, genuine serenity and happiness.
We no longer see the world as the playing field on which our self-centered desires can be achieved. We find instead that we now focus on our responsibility to the world, especially to other addicts seeking the freedom and joy we have found. As the book Alcoholics Anonymous promises, “We will lose interest in selfish things, and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away.” This is not something we achieve, but rather something we prepare the ground for by working the 12 Steps with a knowledgeable sponsor. The work itself is done in us by a power greater than ourselves. Once we get a taste of the happiness and relief that comes as self-seeking slips away, we gladly lend a hand in this work being done in us.
And here, finally, we find a real paradox, and a happy one. The “less” I become, the “more” I become. The less I focus on protecting, puffing up, or advancing my small self—my egoic self made of my character defects and deluded into thinking it is actually separate from other selves—the more I identify with, participate in, and expand into, other persons and other modes of being. The more I “lose my life” the more I “find” it, in greater form. The medieval poet Jelaluddin Rumi eloquently describes the result of this experience:
I am dust particles in sunlight.
I am the round sun.
To the bits of dust I say, Stay.
To the sun, Keep moving.
I am morning mist, and the breathing of evening.
I am wind in the top of a grove, and surf on the cliff.
Mast, rudder, helmsman, and keel,
I am also the coral reef they founder on.
I am a tree with a trained parrot in its branches.
Silence, thought, and voice.
The musical air coming through a flute,
a spark of a stone, a flickering in metal.
Both candle and the moth crazy around it.
Rose, and the nightingale lost in the fragrance.
I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence, the lift,
and the falling away. What is, and what isn’t.
You who know Jelaluddin, You the one in all,
say who I am. Say I am You.”
(Translated by Coleman Barks)
The next time I find myself looking at myself while I work on myself while thumbing through Self magazine, or otherwise becoming attached to what I want and obsessing over me, I hope I will remind myself, “There’s so much less—and more—to me than this!” I hope you will, too.
Image: Le Sacre Coeur; Odilon Redon, artist; Wikimedia Commons
James Reho is an Episcopal priest, school chaplain, and spiritual director. He is also a devoted husband, part-time gardener, and aspiring fiddle sensation. 12-step spirituality holds a central place in his life, which he tries to live one day at a time.