Saturday, May 29, 2010

Submission, or Death to the Ego!

Submission is a word that no one likes to talk about. But I'm reading the book, “How to Inherit the Earth: Submitting Ourselves to a Servant Savior” by Scott Bessenecker – and this book is talking about it. The book was a gift to my from my friend, Dave, who is also the editor of the book and who came with me on the trip to Haiti. How could he have known that this is just the book I needed! God is Good!

Submission is difficult for me. I imagine it's difficult for everyone. But it can be especially difficult for actors. I mean, come on, you don't become an actor because you like anonymity and serving others. That's for stage managers, the people who hang the lights, pull the curtain, you get the point. You become an actor, in part, because you like being in the spotlight in front of lots of people (believe me there are other noble reasons for it too!). As a Christian, I'm having to figure out how to walk this tight-rope. I'm thankful that my work involves children and I seek to make them the center of my shows – but that doesn't mean it's not easy at times to ride an ego wave when a show goes well or receives lots of accolades. It's also difficult since doing the work I love to do requires earning a reputation as a performer – ie; getting noticed – so that people will invite me to perform. Achieving balance in this – so that it's not about me but about my belief in the work -- can be challenging. And in our self-aggrandizing culture, where the ego is lifted up and exalted, it becomes difficult to embrace a way of submissive servanthood – the way that Jesus has called us to.

I'm ashamed to say that much of last year I was pretty dissatisfied with life. I was staying at home, doing a lot of writing and a little performing, but it seemed like it wasn't going anywhere. Despite the fact that I was doing the work I loved, I wasn't happy. Why? I guess because no one was taking notice. This year, it's the exact opposite. I've got three books accepted to be published. More shows than I can keep track of. And am very satisfied with life. But I've realized the danger in this – my contentment or satisfaction has been based on whether or not others deem what I do as valuable. But there is something inherently wrong in this. As a follower of Jesus, my job is not to please man but to please God. So how can my satisfaction be wrapped up in my reputation, worldly success, recognition, the enlarging of my ego, etc? It can't! Or at least it shouldn't. I said to my husband that I wished I would've had a copy of this book about submission that I'm reading now last year when I was struggling with a lot of negative feelings related to my need to be noticed. He said that it's probably better that I didn't. Experiencing those feelings for the length of time that I did and now being able to look back and recognize them for what they are is probably a good thing – a growing thing. I'm just praying the next time I'm in that place, I'm able to take what I've learned and apply it. Easier said than done.

At any rate, it's been awhile since I've read the book “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis, but I seem to remember an unforgettable part that is fitting to this discussion of the ego and submission. In this book there is a Lizard who represents the ego. Some people say he represents lust, but I think lust, or getting what we want when we want it without regard for how it affects God or others, is the driving force behind the ego anyway – so for the purposes of this discussion, I'm counting them as the same. At any rate, the Lizard sits on the shoulder of one of the protagonists – a Ghost – and an Angel tells the Ghost that the Lizard must be killed.

The Ghost is hesitant. He protests, saying: “How can I tell you to kill it? You'd kill me if you did.” The Angel insists that it isn't so. The Ghost wants to wait, to come back tomorrow and do it, but the Angel says, “This moment contains all moments,” (ie; It's now or never! Make a choice! Will you let the ego live or will you let me kill it?” Then the Angel says, “I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?” The Angel moves forward as if to grab the Lizard around the throat and right at that moment the Lizard begins to plead his case to the Ghost who has the power to give him up to the Angel or let him live. He says: “He can kill me. . . Then you'll be without me for ever and ever. How could you live? You'd be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now.” (Of course the irony here is that the protagonist is a ghost, not a real man, however he doesn't see himself that way.)

This moment in the book is so compelling. At the moment that we consider the possibility of killing our own ego, we can be assured that he will strike back with vengeance. He will have every possible argument to tell us why we shouldn't. He tries to convince the protagonist that without him he is nothing – and the world tells us the same. It says that without the fame, recognition, and accolades of others, we are nothing. That if we aren't ever climbing the corporate or social ladder or any other ladder that takes us higher than our fellow man, we are nothing. This is so easy to believe, and yet it is the greatest of lies. It is the ego that keeps us always hungry, ever lusting after more, never content with what we have, ever comparing ourselves to others, unable to be happy for someone else's successes if we feel as though they have surpassed our own, completely absorbed in self.

We know that the ego needs killed, but it's so hard. At the moment where we are ready to give a decisive yes, the ego pleads, saying, “I'll be good. I admit I've sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won't do it again.” Of course these are more lies, bent on getting us to believe that just a little bit of ego can be a good thing. That we can hold on to both love of self and love of God simultaneously – but it doesn't work. You either pick up your cross or you don't. You either lose your life for the sake of the kingdom or you don't. There's no in between, although the modern day church has done a good job of making us believe otherwise.

In the end, the protagonist gives in, albeit somewhat reluctantly, (I think he's just tired of coming up with excuses for the Angel since he knows deep down that the Angel is in the right) and allows the Angel to kill the Lizard. And this is the image I remember more than anything else from the book. As the Angel twists the Lizard's body, he bites and writhes and screams. The protagonist screams and is reeling from this as well. Then the Angel flings the Lizard, broken-backed, onto the ground. The whole thing is quite painful and agonizing for both the Lizard and the Ghost. And so it is for us... killing our ego will take everything we've got. And as we watch it writhe and beg for mercy and as we feel the pain and hurt that its death brings (not getting your way does hurt!), we will want to give in, releasing our death hold and allowing our ego to go on living. But if we do, it will be to our own detriment and we will miss out on becoming what we were meant to be. Because the story isn't over.

After the back-breaking of the Lizard, something happens. It turns out that the Lizard is not actually dead. All this time he's been moving and writhing and growing larger, but taking on a different form. He becomes a silvery stallion. And the protagonist who was once a Ghost has become a real man. That which was once an apparition of a thing has become the real thing. And so it is with us.. . When we kill our ego, we don't lose ourselves. Instead, we become who we were truly meant to be.

I wish I could say that the Lizard on my shoulder were dead, but if I did, that would be a lie. At times, he is super convincing and plies me with all of the reasons why he should stay there and why I should let him go on living, and to be honest, sometimes I like the sound of his voice. He is my ego after all. But I know he is a liar. And so daily I'm working on submission – saying, “Yes God, you have my permission, take him and kill him.” And I think that's what it is – a daily choice. No matter how badly we bruise him today, that Lizard is tenacious and he will find a way to climb back onto our shoulder by tomorrow.

But the way of the ego is empty. In the end, it may leave you with a lot of accomplishments and attention, but you are still a ghost of a thing. And ghosts are dead. Ghosts are creatures who inhabit the world of the dead, but would do anything to get in on the world of the living, even for just a second.

The world of the living isn't what happens when we try to get bigger and better than everyone else. The world of the living is what happens when we wash each other's feet, when we sit around the table together and everyone has enough to eat, when we say 'thank you' and mean it, when I'm just as happy to see you succeed as I am to see myself succeed. It is a world void of jealousy and lust. Many of our poorer neighbors know something about it. And you don't need a college degree to understand it – in fact, maybe if you have one you are at a disadvantage.

Think about it – I spent 2 and half days with a family in Haiti. They never told me about their careers, their successes, or any of the rest of what our culture would deem as giving a person worth. Instead, they shared their food with me, their laughter, their friendship. They washed my feet. They practiced a kind of submission that is almost completely foreign in my culture, and I will never forget them because of it.

There's something special about the way that God does things. He doesn't allow anything to die without redeeming it and turning it into something newer and more full of promise than it was before. I'm going to try to remember that the next time I see my Lizard asking for mercy.

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