A profound metaphor for the process of ego death

As Father Richard Rohr has taught, the first half of life is generally driven by our ego desires – asserting who we believe ourselves to be, competition, and achievement. This stage is crucial to being a functioning human in the world – we have to understand who we are, and we have to establish a trajectory for our lives to work within. The problem is that most Western societies have elevated this half of life to be the whole of our lives. We so value ego, competition, and success that anything that pulls us away from these innate drives is often demonized.

But the second half of life, according to Rohr, is where true inner kenosis happens for many people – it’s a process of understanding and appreciating our egoic identity, but not fundamentally identifying with it. We are no longer “the pastor,” “the teacher,” “the star athlete,” but rather, we begin to contemplate how those aspects of our identity can become tools not only for our own fulfillment but in service of the world. We recognize that our identities and accomplishments alone do not actually have the power to fulfill us, and we begin to lean into those things that do. This is a very real, very painful dying process.

This is where the narrative of Jesus is so psychologically and spiritually helpful: the suffering, the death, and resurrection of Jesus is a profound metaphor for this process of ego death. As Jesus is arrested, tried, tortured, and murdered, we get a sense of what a painful process it can be to willingly enter the process of maturation and spiritual evolution.  Oftentimes, these processes don’t occur willfully for us – instead we are thrust into painful moments of crisis and failure where we must reckon with what is truly real and what is most meaningful to us. Is the career, the title, the money worth it? If we believe that it is, we may well be confronted with a circumstance that dramatically strips it from us, throwing us into an existential crisis. Or perhaps we will have a moment of awakening where we begin to ask critical questions about how we’re living our lives, and more gently but usually no less painfully begin to grapple with the answers.

However we enter into this process and whenever it occurs in our lives (it usually happens many times), ego deaths are a painful but essential part of the spiritual journey. They require a kenotic descent – an emptying of our “false self” to discover what is truest about us. And what is truest about us is not our privilege, our power, or our success. What is truest about us is our interconnectivity to God and to everyone else, the realization of nonduality, that there is not “us” and “them,” but that in God we all live and move and have our being, and therefore, we are essentially one. What is good for the other is good for us, and vice versa. Only in this space do we begin to find the ability to be reckless enough to give of our privilege in service to others. 

From “Filled to Be Emptied: The Path to Liberation for Privileged People” by Brandan Robertson – Westminster John Knox Press