Richard Rohr has written at length about the “first half of life” – which, more or less in keeping with one’s numerical age, is the season of life that is primarily about ego. We like to think that ego is a purely negative quality that only jerks (or maybe “non-Christians”) possess, but that’s not true. All of us have it. And all of us are, to some degree, driven by ego in the first half of life.
Sometimes, definitely not all the time, being ego-driven can have harmful effects on ourselves and those around us. The more excessively ego-driven one is, the more of a jerk (or bully or narcissist or sociopathic despot) they tend to be. Sometimes the effects can be devastating. But, harmful or not, here’s the kicker: virtually no one chooses to stop living from an ego-driven place; no one can simply switch gears and transition to the second half of life.
That transition happens to us, and it only happens to us through suffering.
The key, I think, is to recognize when this suffering comes and, instead of doubling down and re-committing to a life of ego-driven identity, let go of the ego and begin living in the second half of life. That’s a kind of death. And not everyone who ages, and not even everyone who suffers, is able to let go of ego, to die this death all the way. Truly, the hardening of the ego in the face of suffering and trauma produces the most destructive and toxic kind of human beings – avoid them, and avoid becoming them.
But to those who are willing and able to die this death, a resurrection comes. Living truly and deeply – with nothing to lose and nothing to prove – is available only in the second half of life, if we will step into it. The toxic habits of accusation, bullying, aggression, harassment, gossip, slander, etc., become the meaningless trifles of an adolescent attempt at forging identity and status and setting oneself above others. This is all ego, and none of it matters after the crucible of suffering has awakened us to what life is really all about, to our true selves, to the humility that brings real joy and peace.
I am no expert on all this, but I believe the last few years of my life have been, in the main, a transition from the first to the second half of life: from the basic desire to prove myself and create an identity based on what I do, to something much deeper and more free based only in who I am. And it has all come about through suffering – through the traumatic end of our church plant that, in the implosion and rippling aftershocks, truly resulted in my wife and I losing nearly everything. Indeed, it has come about through suffering at the hands of some truly harmful egos around us, illuminating the emptiness of the whole pursuit. Calling, career, finances, friends, and family were all upended by this experience in surprising and devastating ways, similar to an explosive betrayal or toxic divorce. Nothing has been the same in our lives since.
One thing my wife and I have learned in this three-year process is that the clearest sign of truly harmful ego-driven behavior is the tendency to equate what is popular with what is right. To side with popular people and prefer popular status over the well-being of those you once considered friends, partners, even family. Essentially to participate in groupthink and crowd behavior – which is all about concocting false narratives to justify the crowd’s ego-driven identity, maintained by the practice of accusation, bullying, aggression, harassment, and slander toward the “enemy,” the chosen target, the scapegoat. In this case, it was painfully illuminating as we were on the receiving end of the crowd’s destructive ego; we were wrongfully targeted, harshly scapegoated, and at great cost.
For adults especially the obsession with popular people and narratives is a kind of disease that prevents a deep and true life, and continues cycles of harm toward self and others. We are deeply enculturated to seek identity in cliques, to embrace the “popular opinion” of a group or team and find strength (for our ego) in numbers. The crowd, driven by ego, lives to prove itself, to vindicate itself, to flaunt its rightness and success. It reinforces its identity by targeting and attacking others. And it is almost always wrong – as Kierkegaard said, “the angry crowd is untruth.” Again, I am not an expert here – but I know what we experienced from the crowd. And that suffering solidified my own transition into the second half of life, with ever-increasing freedom from the whole pursuit of proving myself.
It is my hope that more and more people would move beyond ego-driven behaviors and cycles, from simple approval-seeking to toxic slandering and bullying, for the sake of truly living.
So consider this an exhortation, especially if you have suffered in an acute and life-changing way. This is an open door. This is an opportunity. Die all the way, no matter how painful it is, no matter what (or who) you might lose – so that you might cure the popularity disease and gain something so much better:
Living a resurrection life with nothing to prove.