We wake up into life with the incurable sense that we’re special, that we’re the centre of the universe.
And, subjectively, we are. In our awareness we’re the centre of the universe and life does revolve around us. Our own being is what’s most real to us. As Descartes famously said, the only thing that we know for sure is real is our own selves: “I think, therefore I am.” We may be dreaming everything else.
Spirituality has perennially judged this negatively. Egocentricity – feelings of grandiosity, self-centredness and pride – were seen as the result of the corruption of human nature through Original Sin.
We called it the Fall. Our first parents attempted to overreach, to be more than God intended them to be, and this irrevocably corrupted their nature and we, their children, inherited this. So we, the adult children of Adam and Eve, also instinctively tend to overreach, to puff ourselves up in self-importance, to fill up with pride and think about ourselves first.
That doctrine of Original Sin has something important to say, but it isn’t first of all to shame us in our natural pride and sense of specialness. The real reason why pride and grandiosity are ingrained inside us is because God built us that way, and that, of itself, is not a fault or a corruption but instead constitutes what’s highest and most precious inside us.
Both Christianity and Judaism take as dogma that we’re born, every one of us, in the image and likeness of God. That’s not to be imagined piously as some beautiful icon stamped inside our souls, but rather as fire – divine fire – which because it is godly brings with it a sense of the preciousness, dignity and uniqueness, of our lives. But with that too comes pride and grandiosity (as part of the same package). Simply put, we can’t have godliness inside us and not feel ourselves as special.
And that makes for a less than serene situation for the planet. We’re now 7.5 billion people on this earth, each one with the same innate sense that he or she is the centre of the universe and that his or her own reality is what’s most real. That’s the real cause behind what you see happening on the world news each night, for worse and for better.
Grandiosity is the source of human strife, but equally the source of human greatness.
It’s important to understand that our innate sense of godliness is also the place where we suffer our deepest wounds. What most wounds the image and likeness of God inside us? These things: humiliation, lack of adequate self-expression, the perennial frustration of bumping up against the limits of life and the martyrdom of obscurity.
Each of us by our nature possesses a divinely given uniqueness and dignity, and thus nothing wounds us more than being humiliated and shamed in our struggle to live this out. Even when we are a very young child a humiliation can scar us for the rest of our lives. It’s one of the reasons why we have mass killings. Likewise, as Iris Murdoch once said, the greatest human pain is the pain of inadequate self-expression.
There’s a great artist, composer, teacher, athlete and performer inside each of us, but few people can ever express that potential satisfactorily. The rest of us have to live with perennial frustration because what’s deepest in us lies unexpressed.
Also, we’re forever bumping up against the real limits of our own lives and limits of life itself. In Karl Rahner’s words, “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we ultimately learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony.” In the end, all of us die with a life that was never fully consummated. And that isn’t easily accepted. Everything inside us militates against this. Finally, almost all of us live a certain martyrdom of obscurity, recognised and famous only inside our own daydreams, our greatness hidden from the world. That too isn’t easily accepted.
What’s to be taken away from this? Since we secretly nurse thoughts of specialness, should we also nurse a secret shame? Is our innate pride something that sets us against holiness? Is our grandiosity a bad thing? Is our frustration with the limits and inadequacy of our lives something that displeases God?
Are our daydreams of uniqueness and greatness something which taints our contemplation and prayer? Is our nature of itself somehow corrupt? Must we somehow step outside of our own skin to be saints?
Each of these questions can be answered in two ways. Grandiosity, pride, shame, frustration and daydreams of greatness can indeed be our downfall and turn us into awful persons: selfish, jealous, spiteful and murderous.
But they can also be the source of greatness, nobility of soul, generosity, selflessness, generativity and true prayer, and they can turn us into selfless martyrs of faith, hope and charity. Our godliness is a very mixed blessing; but it is, no doubt, our greatest blessing.