I recently heard bestselling author Karen Armstrong say that “Spiritual and Religious Sages have long known that our egos very often keep us from being our best selves.” This I have seen play out in two very dangerous ways on our campus.
The need for high accomplishment and the affirmation that often accompanies those accomplishments is an illusory trap that can lead us from what and from whom we are called to be. Many of us find ourselves applying to and seeking to attend the “best possible” or highest ranking college or graduate school rather than the best possible fit. Our egos keep us in majors that we don’t want to be in as opposed to our studying that which tugs at our heart and passions. It diverts us into careers that will make others proud of us or jobs that will allow us to attain a certain type of lifestyle rather than allowing us to follow true callings. We appease the needs of our egos and our unhealed insecurities by transient titles and accomplishments.
Sadly, it is our ego that also hinders us from reaching out for help along the way. Not wanting anyone to know that we are struggling in a class, going through a difficult time at home, or that we are hurting inside, diverts us from the supportive community that Penn is (that Penn can be for all of us), to an isolated path. This so called “Penn Face” is something that transcends our university and is sadly reflected in the larger culture where showing vulnerability is frowned upon. Our ego’s needs to seem well and strong are, like needs for affirmation, things that keep us from being our best selves.
My hope and prayer for all students (and faculty, staff, and administrators) this year is that we might have the courage to be ourselves – our best selves. To study and pursue intellectual and heart interests that we love and are called to rather than what we think will make others proud of us. I pray that we have the strength to ask for help when we are weak.
Popular notions of the word “ego” have changed over time to be almost exclusively related to conceit and an inflated image of self-worth. At one point ego simply was our sense of personal identity or how we view and define our self. I prefer that definition. It’s must simpler and unpolluted by insecurity. Thus, that is my prayer plain and simple. That we could be ourselves.