Finding health between hubris and humiliation

A healthy ego makes for a healthy individual, as well as healthier families and communities.

People with a healthy ego can receive criticism with grace, celebrate the success of others, and make sacrifices on behalf of those who cannot help themselves. They can be trusted to lead, because the team or company or country they serve is as important to them as their own well-being.

But what is a healthy ego and how do we get it?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed that every virtue follows a Golden Mean between extremes. In this case, a healthy ego — or sense of self — falls between the vices of pride and shame, between thinking too highly of oneself and thinking too lowly of oneself. Healthy self-esteem reveals itself in strong character traits such as modesty, generosity and responsibility — all of which our society can do with a great deal more of.

Biblical wisdom teaches us that “pride goes before the fall,” and that we “should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought.” Likewise, it teaches that we are created in the image and likeness of God, that we are made “a little lower than the angels,” and that we are to be stewards of the rest of creation. We are noble creatures of God’s making, located between angels above and animals below (though even angels are said to envy our place). The biblical narrative teaches us that we are truly ourselves when we reach up ambitiously to make more of ourselves (without yearning to be God), reach out generously to one another, and reach down compassionately to the rest of creation.

The myth of Icarus illustrates the right calibration of our souls. Icarus was the son of the clever artisan Daedalus, who designed a labyrinth on the Isle of Crete for King Minos in which to trap the half-man, half-beast Minotaur. The king was so delighted he determined to keep Daedalus and his son, Icarus. But when the craftsman objected, the king had them locked in a high tower.

After much musing and many models, Daedalus designed wings of wax and feathers for their escape. The day of departure finally arrived, but before they took flight, the father warned the son not to fly too low lest the ocean spray weigh down his wings, nor too high that the heat of the sun melt the wax and send him to ruin.

At first Icarus followed behind his father safely as they crossed the sea, but in his euphoria to soar freely he flew higher and higher, defying his father’s counsel. The higher he rose, the more the heat of the sun’s rays beat against his wings until they lost all power to support him.

Icarus’ plunge into the sea continues to remind us of the fatal consequence of an over-inflated ego. The strategy of flying too low could have produced a similar tragedy, albeit one less memorable.

Humility names the moderate way between hubris and humiliation that describes a healthy ego. Humble people know they know some things and not everything. They do not take up more than their share of oxygen in any room. They listen to the wisdom of others, and they follow or depart from it only with prudence.

The ironic thing about humility is that you will never gain on it by focusing on it, and you will never master it without losing it in the very moment you think you have it. Instead of a virtue, therefore, we might call it a grace.

Grace is divine help. Humility is grace shyly shown.


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