The ugliest thing in a person is ultimately essential to preserving the beautiful thing we are becoming…
My son pulls a book called Wonder out of his backpack. His face is full of resolve, and I ask him why he looks so serious. He tells me kids at his school keep returning the book to the library within the first fifty pages, because they get too emotional. I ask him if the same fate will befall him. He says, like the tough guy the world is training him to be, “Nah, I won’t cry.”
Two days later, he walks out of his bedroom, his face now full of crumbled resolve, and he puts the book in front of my wife. So she picks it up, and I lose her for a day, as she disappears into the fictional world:
Into Auggie’s world.
The story of an eleven-year-old boy born with extreme facial deformities.
The story of a boy beginning public school for the first time, venturing into the wild, where his tender heart is the prey, and his peers are the predators.
My curiosity gets the best of me and I start reading the book and the story does something completely unexpected to me: it turns some more of my hate into gratitude.
What I Hate
I hate ego—the part of our minds responsible for protecting our hearts from a wounding world.
I hate my own ego, and I hate ego in others.
Because ego is the biggest cause of suffering in the world. The protective ego keeps us isolated and alone and deprived of the one thing we all want: connection. It creates division and leads to violence. It is the fuel of arrogance. It ruins marriages and families and relationships of every kind. If there is one thing in the world I still want to label as entirely bad and irredeemable, it’s the human ego.
But reading Wonder made me wonder: how could our good, beautiful, tender hearts ever survive the perils of youth if they weren’t protected by something?
Because while few of us are born with extreme deformities, we all encounter a shame that makes us feel deformed, like we’ll never be good enough for the world around us. Maybe our egos are the necessary armor, preserving our vulnerable hearts while we venture through the wild.
When I Quit Hating
Several days after Wonder was introduced to our home, my son told us he’d been bullied at school, called “nerd” and other words in that particular constellation of fourth-grade cruelty. I asked him how he responded.
He smiled and said, “Actually, I didn’t have to respond. My friends responded for me. And that felt good.” His friends also responded in typical fourth-grade fashion, with a barrage of slurs about jocks and athletes.
I listened to his story of budding fourth-grade egos, of boys building walls, hunkering down in their own tribes and finding safety there. My son was grateful for that. And as I considered my son’s vulnerable heart, I became grateful, too.
What I’m Grateful For
I often talk about the ego as a castle with three parts:
first the walls we build around our brilliant souls to keep people out and to keep ourselves safe—walls like silence and pretending and public personas,
then the cannons we add to the walls because we’re tired of hiding and want someone else to feel wounded for a change—cannons like criticism and slander and gossip and fists and fury,
and finally the throne we build within our walls to make ourselves feel like the king or queen—thrones made of power and possessions and prestige.
But as I sat in gratitude with my son, I realized: Our egos aren’t meant to be a fortress—they’re meant to be a chrysalis, a thin membrane protecting us in our process of becoming the beauty we already are.
A membrane that can’t hold us forever.
A membrane that gives way once we have experienced the beauty we are beneath all the shame and protection and pretending.
A membrane that bursts open when our urge to get out, spread our wings, and fly free becomes absolutely insuppressible.
What I Hope For
Now, I’m grateful for the ways my ego has protected me. I’m grateful for childhood nights in bed, riddled with anxiety, calculating what mistakes I’d made and who noticed. Building walls. It gave me some sense of control over a world that felt completely out of control.
I’m grateful for the year I considered half the country a political enemy of mine—I’m grateful for the way I used ideas and categories and labels like cannons to keep people at a distance—because my heart must have been needing a lot of protection during that election cycle.
I’m grateful for the way my ego compelled me to learn and achieve, so I could put myself on a throne and keep my heart safe, well “above” everyone else.
My ego served me well. For a time.
Long enough for me realize it was reinforcing my fears, isolating me, wounding others, and keeping me chasing lofty—but transient and meaningless—goals.
Long enough to discover the heart it protected is good and beautiful and worthy of love and belonging and, because of that, doesn’t need any protection at all.
My ego served me long enough to outgrow it.
Long enough to let it go.
Long enough for it to come raging back, like a bad habit I can’t kick.
And long enough to let it go again. Over and over and over.
It’s the challenge we all face. Will our ego become a fortress? Will we rely upon its fickle facade for a sense of worth? Or will we climb down off our throne and dance in the courtyard of our ego with the good and beautiful self we’ve always been and are always becoming? Will we dance, and will we begin to dismantle those walls, making ourselves available for the very connection and belonging and union we’ve been desiring all along?
I hope we will. Because the dance is a wonder to live. And we are, in fact, beneath all the protection and pretending, wonderful to behold.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.