The ego (’cause we all have one)

Yesterday was my church’s 500th celebration of institutional rebellion. While some now question whether Martin Luther nailed anything to the door,  what I don’t question is my own roots as a reformer.

Luther had his faults, but what I most admire was his anti-authoritarianism when it came to human-made and -led institutions.

Luther defending himself under questioning by Rome in the early 1500s. The Pope’s right to issue indulgences was at the center of the dispute. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia

It takes courage to declare that you are doing something motivated by a moral imperative, rather than social pressure or expectation. Our church’s famous tagline, “by grace alone,” signifies to me a higher authority that is not of a human nature.

It also takes a healthy dose of ego, or recognition of the self in context of external realities, which is why I’m revisiting this post from 2012:

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Egos are tricky things for aid workers, grantmakers, social entrepreneurs and international do-gooders. Looking at a problem like malaria or poverty and saying, “Gee, I think I could help make a difference here,” requires our egos to be involved. (Why, starting a blog may be the most ego-driven act of all! And that is why I’ll be referring to “our egos” here.)

As soon as our work becomes all about us though, it can suffer. It will be less responsive to others’ needs and risks being inconsequential in the everyday lives of those people we aim to serve. Here’s three ways an unchecked ego can trip us up, as well as suggestions for how to prevent this.

1. Our ego insulates us.

A function of our ego within our consciousness is to protect ourselves from emotional harm, which is why it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But this instinct to protect can narrow our perspective and leave us less open to listening and learning from others. A person driven by ego can push a mother’s health initiative forward come hell or high water, or can high-mindedly question everything about “what works” in poverty alleviation. But the ego rarely, if ever, encourages us to question ourselves.

One of my oldest and dearest friends once told me that my commitment to making a point, whether it’s fully vetted or not, it my most endearing and frustrating trait. This is why it’s vital for us to have a trusted network of peers (perhaps most importantly with those outside of our organization or initiative), who can say to you frankly, “Hey, shut it. There may be another viewpoint you are not seeing.”

2. Our ego alienates other people.

Our ego does indeed matter if it makes people feel that they don’t count. A battle of egos leaves everyone else feeling insignificant and frustrated, and it’s everyone needed to tackle something as complex as social transformation?

To prevent this, we must consistently (and sincerely!) solicit feedback from those we’re working with and for, and sooner rather than later. We also must know that if it’s truthful, hearing people’s perspectives may sometimes hurt our feelings. Our challenge is not to dismiss it outright, but let it inform us going forward.

3. Our ego can shut down dialogue.

Throughout my years in international aid, I’ve been involved in lots and lots and lots (!) of discussions. However, there is a big difference between discussion and dialogue where us do-gooders are concerned. A discussion is an exchange of words and ideas. But in a dialogue, people come to the table willing to create new understandings. They are willing to be changed by the experience and an unchecked ego can obviously inhibit this from occurring.

If you want to differentiate between a discussion and a dialogue, pay attention to who is talking. If no one is telling you “no” or if someone has the answer to everything, that’s a clue you’re probably not participating in a meaningful dialogue. As do-gooders, it’s vital to seek out opportunities to find people who will disagree with you. Make friends with them. Ask them to hold you accountable. This is even more important the more power and access to resources a person has.

The bottom line is that our egos can get in the way of how other people see us, relate to us, and whether and how they are willing to work with us. Martin Luther must have had an inkling of this, given the revolution he sparked 500 years ago. Today, similar acts of courage are required to reform our sector. As author Richard Rohr (incidentally, a Catholic) writes:

It is almost impossible to give your life warmly for an idea, a force, an energy, or a concept. We are programmed to give our lives away to other persons.

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