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What I’m Reading Now: Ego Is The Enemy

I’ve started in on the second of the Ryan Holiday books of the trilogy that I got for Christmas (The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, Stillness is the Key), and so far I’m enjoying it. I’m only part way through, and despite the fact that there is a bias I’m somewhat used to (more on that in a moment), I can easily adjust for it and still be able to get a great amount of wisdom out of it.

One of the biases is possibly gendered, and I’m quite used to sorting through it in wisdom literature, as I am a Christian priest and the Bible that I preach and teach out of was written – and let me be so entirely clear about this – totally and completely from the male point of view. (No, not the god point of view, and Jesus, the one guaranteed enlightened master mentioned within its pages, never took pen to paper and wrote anything himself; everything we know about Jesus was written by his followers, which presents its own problems of interpretation which I’m not going to delve into here.) And so I’m quite used to having to do some heavy interpretation on passages meant to be read and absorbed by men who wrestle with having too much power and too much pride and not actually women who wrestle with having not enough power over their own lives and too much humility. There are certainly times so far in this book that I think, ‘yeah, except the dominant message in so many women’s lives really hasn’t been ‘you’re so awesome, you’re perfect, you can do this, you’re better than you imagine you are’. It’s not to say that women can’t have pride as an issue, absolutely they can. And it’s not to say that a woman can’t have overweening pride in an area of her life that is unwarranted, and that hubris can’t take over one of her endeavors and 86 the whole darn thing. It sure can. But I wouldn’t call it the primary problem of most of the women I know, at least of my own generation and older. (Not to cast shade on Millennials on down, I just have more contact with older people.)

But reinterpreting it, one can spin ego the other way, too, if we take a slightly broader focus, or just stand back and squint a bit. Because a woman’s belief that she can’t, or she shouldn’t can be just as devastating to her success and personal growth as any belief that she’s owed. Which goes back to my personal definition of true humility; knowing your place in the world as no better and no worse than it actually is. The prideful think their place is greater, bigger, better, and it bites them in the ass. The demeaned think their places is lesser, smaller, worse, and it bites them in the ass, too. The truly humble walk calmly with self awareness.

The author carefully defines ego as, essentially, pride. A broader definition helps me better: ego is the voice within that is lying to you, and doing so very convincingly. And when I use my own definition, the author and I still agree: ego is the enemy.

Having said that, with a little distance and a little blurring, all his lessons still apply, the issue just isn’t always overweening pride.

The other thing requiring interpretation (so far) is the author’s distaste for talking and the preference for silence, and the author pulls a lot of quotes to that effect. Here again, this might possibly be a gendered bias, and that’s okay, let’s just name it. (Ahem. Talk about it.)

Historically speaking, women’s voices have been silenced. I say this as a biblical scholar who reads ancient wisdom texts that I personally hold to be useful and holy in which my gender is not at all represented. It’s not a sour grapes thing, it’s just observation: St. Peter was an acknowledged idiot, but we get plenty of his perspective and opinion. St. Mary Magdalene was praised by Jesus on several occasions for her wisdom and we don’t get any of her perspectives and opinions – we only ever watch Mary get vilified by someone around her, for which Jesus comes to her defense. 

And yes, when someone (of any gender, to be clear) is mansplaining something to me (any person of any gender can talk down to another, informing them of things the listener is actually an expert in, and I hold this to be true), I really do wish for more silence. True. Absolutely true. Pride and words can be a deeply annoying combination; better to hold your silence, as the author advocates.

And yes, when I have a creative idea and I talk too much about it, something changes in my head. I’ve always been aware of this, perhaps because my creative ideas are actually stories and I want to tell them. If I do it verbally, then it’s done. If I write it down, then it’s done. And it’s more valuable to me as a present and future asset, to write it down, so that’s where my energy should lie – so I can discuss the characters and stories with my husband, but there comes a point where I have to stop, otherwise I won’t actually write it. But I’ve actually mastered fiction writing a long time ago, so this was something I knew well before I got married, and was duly prepared for. No problem there. Totally agree with the author: when talking replaces useful action towards the goal, talking is the problem. I’m on board.

Here’s where I’m not on board, and it’s possibly not a place the author intended to go, or perhaps it’s something he’ll address later in the book that I haven’t gotten to yet: talking heals people. 

I point this out because the author seems to be strongly advocating silence across the board, and that’s certainly where his quotes tend. No really, they seem to say, just stop talking in general and you’ll fare better. 

And that’s where we just disagree.

I’m not just a writer. I’m a priest. I’m a spiritual director. I’m a social worker. And there are things that people need to say out loud and preferably to someone else and if they don’t, their situation isn’t going to get any better. Yes, I’m looking at various forms of talk therapy both professional, semi-professional, and friends over coffee. But I’m also looking at speaking truth to power. I’m looking at a healthy relationship with your spouse. I’m looking at raising children well. I’m looking at reaching out to your friends. And absolutely we all need to choose our words well. And absolutely we need to honor silence and its role in relationships. And also no, that deep fear inside of you isn’t going to go anywhere at all until you speak it out loud, realize how odd it sounds, and then start to heal. And I’ve seen the people who desperately need to talk about the deep stuff (the fear, the trauma, the pain, the hurts) and they either keep their silence (as the author deifies in general), or talk about everything in the world but the one thing they really need to address (as the author vilifies and for good reason), but these are two extremes, in my opinion.

There is a middle ground of talking in order to heal, and that is a middle ground I try hard to occupy, even though I know perfectly well that sometimes I say too much, and sometimes I keep my silence not out of wisdom, but for other less noble reasons.

So, those are my two gendered bias issues with the book so far, and despite the fact that I’ve spent quite a lot of this blogpost describing them, I am liking this book so far. My enjoyment of it isn’t quite as wholehearted as for his previous, The Obstacle is the Way, but then I didn’t find myself needing to continually reinterpret rather than mindlessly internalize a message that wasn’t actually meant for me, as is.

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