Injured Egos


After Sunday’s Conference championship games we now know who will play in this year’s Super Bowl. Since my Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t even make the playoffs this year, for the first time in many years, I’m not all that interested. We Steeler fans are used to a stable organization. With only three head coaches since 1969, we considered drama in the locker room to be something for other teams, not for the Black and Gold. But this year we were proved wrong (for those who were blessed not to have heard the saga, click here for summary).

For all that is not known about what really went on, what we do know is that this year we had an NFL first: every week, NFL teams post a list of their players with all kinds of ailments and injuries (back, knee, ankle, shoulder, thumb, etc.) who will not play that week. In the final week of the regular season leading up to the final game, Antonio Brown, our incredibly talented wide-receiver, was officially listed as injured (knee). But what has become apparent is that the real injury was not to a body part at all, and it was much more serious. Antonio Brown seems to have been sidelined by a bruised egoIf reports are true–and the complete story is not yet known–his disagreement with the team’s quarterback and his disappointment with the entire team for not voting him Most Valuable Player left Mr. Brown out of sorts. It was blunt trauma to the ego with acute bruising of his pride.

While it would be easy to sit in judgement of the superstar football player throwing a multimillion-dollar temper tantrum, if we’re honest with ourselves, we could all admit that no matter what amount of emotional padding and protective gear we try to put on, all of us end up with bruised egos now and then. For us, maybe it’s our friends who call each other more than they call us. Or maybe it’s the new guy at the office who got picked over us when it was promotion time. Maybe it’s the “innocent joking” at our expense that we find no laughing matter.  WAY too often, it even happens in our church life, where bruised egos can become the norm in our church communities, from clergy who too often secretly compete for popularity, to the meat pie bakers in the kitchen before the annual festival ranking cooking skills, to that most bruising forum of egos, the meeting room of the Parish Council. Oh, and the parking lot where the “meetings after the meeting” happen to keep score of the ego bruising. No matter the specifics of our susceptibility to ego injuries, we can probably all agree that they happen way too often, either to ourselves or in their much more easy-to-detect occurrences in the people around us.

So what exactly is ego bruising? To understand that, we have to understand what the ego itself is. Based on the Latin word for “I,” ego has come to be understood–or misunderstood–as an overemphasis on ourselves. Writers across religions and philosophies, however, have come to a surprising and important conclusion: my ego is not really me. My ego is my false idea about who I am. This important distinction is given complete clarity within Orthodox Christianity, which stands alone among the various Christian traditions in maintaining that at our core each of us retains our essential perfection. We are made in God’s image and created to eternally develop and grow to be ever more like Him. In the deepest part of who we really are, we are just like God: perfect, able to love perfectly, and perfectly loved by Him with the same love that unites the persons of the Trinity, bringing the Three into One.

Our egos, however, are very different. Forgetting who and what we really are, we identify with all kinds of false images of ourselves, and we place importance on things that have none: how good (or bad) we think we look, how skilled (or not) we are in our work, in sports and hobbies, and in the roles we play with each other: parent, child, sibling, co-worker, etc. These ideas of who we are develop into our egos, which are not real but are simply the stories we tell ourselves about who we really are. And because they’re just stories, our concepts of ourselves–our egos–are very fragile. They’re weak. And yes, they’re easily bruised. Moreover, because the ideas about ourselves are not real, many of us carry around a nagging fear–mostly in our subconscious–that someday we may be found out to be the frauds that deep down we’re afraid we are.

But here’s the really good news: all of that fear and weakness, all the pride and despair we build on these false self-images is not real. Beneath all that mess that we try to build and protect is the real us. Still perfect, still like God, and still aware that we are loved by Him, just as we are. There’s no need for a roller-coaster self-esteem that rises and falls by the numbers on the bathroom scale or the honor and respect we get from family, friends, and even NFL teammates. The confidence we can have by knowing our true identities–beloved sons and daughters of the Most High God–can be unshakable, because that confidence is based on Him and not us. His love for us doesn’t rise and fall with our own silly measures of success. His esteem for us is constantly perfect and complete.

And when we base our esteem of ourselves on who He made us to be, we don’t grow in the pride that self-esteem can grow, that flimsy but false sense of our worth. We grow in humility, knowing just exactly who and what we are. And what is that? The beloved of our loving God. The apple of His eye.

Antonio Brown, the football player on the injured reserve list with the bruised ego, has an interesting catch phrase. In moments of celebration, he’ll make his hand into a fake telephone, hold it up to his head and yell, “Call God!” And that’s exactly what all of us need to do a whole lot more often. Got a bruised ego because of someone’s disrespect or indifference? Call God, and learn from Him what love and respect feel like from Someone who literally died for you. Mired in self-doubt and afraid you just don’t measure up? Call God and learn the real value of your wholeness, even if hidden deep within.  Tempted to build your confidence on your own shallow measures of success that come and go? Instead, let’s Call God and gain the confidence that only comes when we forget who we think we are and remember who He thinks we are.

We’ve all nursed the bruised egos that come all too often. It’s time to recognize that everything that comes from our egos is false, feeble and eventually fatal. It’s time to Call God and know who and what we are really are, so that we can live as that version of ourselves: the real one.