14. Ego Food
By "ego food" I mean anything that nourishes the ego - the "I" or the "me" within us. It includes flattery, compliments, applause, anything that makes us feel appreciated, admired, loved ... or even hated, so long as we are noticed and made to feel important. Whatever gives our selfhood a boost is ego food; we lap it up, it is sweet in our mouths, even if it is sometimes bitter afterwards in our stomachs. People do good deeds, but want everyone to know about it; if you thank them a great deal, and compliment them, they are happy. "They have their reward," said Jesus. Maybe they work for the Church or some worthy cause; but if nobody makes a fuss of them and they do not get sufficient acknowledgment, they are touchy and become disgruntled. All they really wanted, apparently, was ego food! It can work in reverse, too; there are those who do not like to be helped or to be given things, because this puts them in an inferior position and so deprives them of ego food. There is also the subtler and more poisonous kind of ego food that comes to us when we criticize other people and put them in the wrong, thus, by implication, putting ourselves in the right. I hope I am not doing that very thing!
There is also the wholesome and digestible ego food of achievement and success, when things go the way we want them to, and we can legitimately take a pride in our accomplishments. A certain amount of this is necessary for our growth and development as human beings, especially in the earlier stages. The child who is never complimented, who feels he can never win approval, remains undeveloped. His selfhood is starved, and can no more be expected to grow satisfactorily than a starved body can grow satisfactorily. Even after we reach adulthood, we still need encouragement and appreciation and a few compliments now and then, to keep up our self-respect and enable us to stand firmly on our two feet with our head in the air. We need to feel we are achieving some of the things that are important to us, that we are making at least a partial success of life. And it is a happy responsibility in any group of friends to "build one another up" in love, and provide the encouragement which is necessary for the healthy nourishment of each other's selfhood.
It is usual in religious circles to condemn the ego (or "proprium" as Swedenborg calls it) as totally vile. True, Swedenborg usually describes it as evil, but in doing so he is always referring to the contents of the ego of the unregenerate man. After regeneration, it is called the "heavenly proprium." The angels have such an ego; it is filled to the brim with the life of God. The fact is that the ego is a vessel which can hold either evil from hell or good from heaven. You are a vessel with two faucets, and you can choose which of the two you will turn on, or you can turn them both on together in various combinations. To change the metaphor, you are a room with two doors: one will admit angels, and one will admit devils, and you can choose which kind of visitor you will entertain. We are judged good or evil, according to the contents of our ego; for what it contains is our adult responsibility. But we ourselves are nothing more nor less than a vessel with a built-in choice mechanism. Every created object is a vessel of some sort; man is unique in that he alone has the power to choose what he shall contain. He alone has free will.
Please note that I said: "What our ego contains is our adult responsibility." We are not born with a functioning ego. It takes from fifteen to twenty years for the ego to become fully grown. And when at last it does begin to operate, the first choices it makes are unfortunately (as Swedenborg points out) almost wholly evil: that is to say, we start off by pandering to our loves of self and the world. Most of us have to undergo the complete change of orientation known as regeneration before we can be motivated by love to the Lord and love to the neighbor, which constitute heaven.
Would it not be wise, then, to say "no, no, no!" to our young people, pulling them back, hindering them, blocking their movements, frustrating them in every possible way, until they have become regenerated and can be motivated by heavenly loves? That has been tried in various cultures. The Puritans tried it; and in a somewhat different way, so did the Victorians, but without much success. The fact is, if we do not allow our young people a certain latitude to choose evil as well as good, their choice-mechanism will not develop at all, and they will never be able to choose good. In other words, it is a merciful provision of Providence that a great deal of selfishness should be allowed to fill the unregenerate ego, because if the selfishness were forcibly removed, the ego itself would be damaged, and so no further development would be possible. Remember the parable of the tares in the wheat field, which had to be left there until the harvest.
So far I have been speaking of young people; but spiritual immaturity has little to do with our age in years. Throughout most of our lives we need to have something in our ego which gives us joy and satisfaction, or we shall just shrivel up and go sour or bitter, and be good for nothing. In my own case, for instance, I realize that I still need quite a lot of ego food, which is fortunately supplied. I have a wife who backs me up and plenty of good friends who encourage me. Quite a few of the things I have attempted to do have been successful - I have no cause for dissatisfaction. Actually I get an unnecessarily large number of compliments from my dear friends; but I try not to let myself be affected by them too much, because I realize that "enough is enough." I also get some brick bats thrown at me occasionally but they do not knock me off balance. I hope you also feel that you have enough ego food for your well being.
On the other hand, I am not by any means having everything my own way. Many of my ambitions have fallen by the wayside; there are ways in which I have dismally failed. I am often frustrated. But it is interesting to note that most of the things I cannot get, or cannot manage to achieve, are things motivated by love of self and love of the world. In fact, the Lord is helping me to develop spiritually by whittling back my self-motivated desires. Maybe this is a compliment, because it means He can see that I really want it that way. He has taken me at my word on those occasions when I have prayed to Him: "O Lord, Thy will, not mine, be done."
As a man becomes an angel, the nature of his ego changes. It is still a vessel, and there are still two faucets; but the faucet from hell is now permanently shut off. I doubt whether he could turn it on, even if he wanted to; it has rusted up with disuse; but the fact is, he never wants to! He has chosen to align himself permanently with God's will, and so he does not need his own free will any more. His great joy has been to give himself up to the Lord. He is now going with the current, not against it; and his relinquishment of self-determination has produced a blissful state in which all tensions and doubts and difficulties have been resolved. His ego is completely emptied of selfish desires, and is filled instead with the Spirit of God, which overflows all around him. He no longer needs any of what I have called ego food. He can stand confidently on his feet without it, and rejoice in the realization that he is nothing, God is all.
We are told in the writings of Swedenborg that the angels do not like to be praised, or even thanked, for the services they render one another. If they allow a single compliment or word of gratitude to touch their hearts, a cloud seems to overshadow them. They feel a dead weight in the stomach, and shiver for a moment, oppressed by the burden of self. Their only desire is to "lend, hoping for nothing again." This poses a dilemma, because every angel loves to praise and compliment his companions, yet none feels comfortable when praised or thanked! The solution is, of course, that as soon as a word of appreciation reaches anyone in heaven, he immediately passes it over to the Lord, to whom it is really due. Thus the angels become channels or conduits of gratitude and praise to God, and everybody is happy. To express it in another way, since the vessel of their selfhood is now empty of self-love and full of the Spirit of God, it is the Lord who is being complimented when an angel is complimented, and it is the Lord who is being loved when an angel is loved. Giving and receiving gifts and services becomes a matter of mutual joy, and the question of whose ego is being fed ceases to arise, for it is on the Lord's behalf that everything is being done.
You and I are not yet angels, I guess; yet we all want to become angels eventually. Heaven is our goal. Love of possessions must eventually give way to love to the neighbor; love of self must give way to love to the Lord. Our hunger for ego food must grow less and less, until we have outgrown the taste for it altogether, just as adults outgrow the taste for candy. When ego food is offered to us, we should accept it graciously, but pass it over to the Lord without swallowing a single crumb of it ourselves.
This is the explanation of the release and gaiety of those who have been reborn as children of the heavenly Father. When Jesus was on earth, the Scribes and Pharisees were shocked at the joyous freedom shown by this little band of disciples, who went about the country like a wedding party. (They were even accused, quite erroneously, of being intoxicated, Acts 2:13.) So would the Puritans and Victorians of a past generation be shocked at the joyous freedom of the mature Christian today. Yet St. Augustine had the idea, back in the fourth century. "Love God," he said, "and do as you please." He was right, because, if you really love God, you will only want to do what pleases Him, for it is God within you who is urging you to it!
The real saints of this world show none of the mealy-mouthed humility and self-abnegation generally expected of church members. They no longer need or want the ego food which this kind of self-righteousness provides. Instead, they glory in God. Paul used the word "boasting"; he "boasted" in Christ. And the Psalmist declared: "My soul shall make her boast in the Lord (Ps. 34:2.). We should not quite use that word "boast" today, but the meaning is clear. So I will end with the story of a missionary who was visiting a new area in Africa. He was sitting with the local pastor, while the villagers entertained them with sports and a violent mock battle. In the heat of the contest was a young man whose bearing and dignity were outstanding. He held his head high, and there was a smile on his lips while he exerted himself apparently more energetically than anyone else. "Who is that young man in the middle there? He seems to be enjoying himself!" remarked the missionary. "That," came the reply, "is the son of the Chief."