#1587 Areté +1° #388: The Paradox of the Ego

We Need a Strong One to Let It Go

Hi, this is Brian.

Welcome back to another Areté +1°, a micro-chapter from my new book, Areté: Activate Your Heroic Potential.

This one is called…


Let’s spend another moment or three with Franciscan mystic-monk Richard Rohr. We’re going to talk about what he calls “The Paradox of the Ego.”

As we discussed, in Falling Upward, he integrates his Catholic faith with ancient myths and modern wisdom.

His book is all about the “two halves of life” or “the two tasks of life.”

Note: The “two mountains” in David Brooks’s great book The Second Mountain are, essentially, his take on this idea.

As Father Rohr says: “There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well.”

So… Two tasks.

First, we build up a strong Identity by playing the normal games of society.


We move beyond that to connect with our higher purpose and something bigger than ourselves.

It’s basically moving from an “ego” level to a “soul” level.


Here’s the paradox.

As Rohr says: “You ironically need a very strong ego structure to let go of your ego.”

He continues by saying: “In fact… far too many… have lived very warped and defeated lives because they tried to give up a self that was not there yet. This is an important paradox for most of us.”

Father Rohr leans on the wisdom of Joseph Campbell and Ken Wilber to make his point. So, let’s invite them to the party to hear what they have to say on the subject.

In Pathways to Bliss, Campbell tells us: “Of course, to reach the transpersonal, you have to go through the personal: you have to have both qualities there.”

In One Taste, Ken Wilber tells us: “But ‘egoless’ does not mean ‘less than personal’; it means ‘more than personal.’ Not personal minus, but personal plus—all the normal qualities, plus some transpersonal ones… There is certainly a type of truth to the notion of transcending ego: it doesn’t mean destroy the ego, it means plug it into something bigger… Put bluntly, the ego is not an obstruction to Spirit, but a radiant manifestation of Spirit.”

Nathaniel Branden offers another way to look at it. In The Art of Living Consciously, he tells us that we can’t let go of something we never had a firm hold of.

Again, as Father Rohr tells us: “You ironically need a very strong ego structure to let go of your ego.”

That’s the Paradox of the Ego.

So… Richard tells us that building this “ego container” is the primary task of the first half of life.

Then we need to empty it in the second half of life.

And refill it with God.

I think the simplest way to think about it is to go back to Desmond Tutu and his brilliant reminder that we’re just the light bulbs. Our job is simple: Stay screwed in.

To do that, we must have the wisdom and the discipline to create a very strong sense of self SUCH THAT the Divine Light can shine through us.

Rather than “delete” the small “self,” it’s more powerful to think about the fact that we’re plugging our little selves into something much bigger than ourselves so it goes ALL CAPS.

Like this… self → SELF!

Let’s plug in and do that.


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