Winter 1983, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 358-365.

Donald Goergen:
      Current Trends: The Desert and the Ego

Father Goergen, O.P., is doing research and writing a book in the field of Christology. He is currently living and serving part-time as chaplain in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin.

ONCE upon a time .... We have already given it away! Words like that tell us that we are in for a story. Like the openers of Jesus -- they used to give away the fact that people were in for a parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like . . . ," or "To what shall I compare the reign of God?" or "There once was a man who hosted a great dinner." For most of us, words like that capture our attention rather than divert it elsewhere. We all like a story.

And so, once upon a time there was a man (who could just as well have been a woman) in a desert. We should say semidesert to be precise (and this particular man would want us to be precise). There was a river flowing through it, and there were mountains as well. As you can see, this was no ordinary desert. Ordinary deserts do not make good stories anyway. Besides, there are many kinds of deserts, and any desert is a place of contrast. In this desert there was the contrast between the living water and the dry land; between the mountains (some were 8,000 feet high) and the canyon below; among the yellows, the reds, the browns, and the grays, all the color that the mountains comprised; not to mention the contrast between cold, dark nights and warm, sunny days; between the full moon and the half-moon; between fish and rabbits. All the contrasts made the desert a place of beauty rather than a desert of desolation. This desert was rugged and austere but alive and delightful. Its name was Peace; some called it Beauty.

We can already tell that this is not about to be a good story, for we have dwelt too long on the flavor of the desert. We should have said something more about our main character (or is he the main character?). The desert was no ordinary desert: but the man was an ordinary man, in fact, a very ordinary man. He was so ordinary that one could find others just like him almost anywhere. I'm not sure of his name. He called himself Murph; others called him Ego. (Now you can see why he was like every other man.)

The fact is that Murph was a good person. He was well liked, was thoughtful and successful. In spite of that, he was still a man, and every man has an ego, and Murph's ego was no bigger nor more insecure than any other man's. You can see how very ordinary he was.

I say that Murph called himself Murph because I'm not sure if that was his real name. I'm not sure Murph knew his real name. Murph didn't know his self. He was too conscious of his ego, and rightly so. That is what made him who he was and got him where he was; it made him a man. Murph was not about to lose his ego. So Murph thought of himself as just Murph, as Paul, I suppose, had always thought he was Saul, and Peter insisted that he was Simon. Names are strange things. Note how we introduce ourselves, or how others refer to us, or our nicknames or names we have for friends and lovers. Well, Murph called himself Murph because he saw himself as a murph, and a very ordinary murph, while in fact he was extraordinary. Others saw through Murph (as others are wont to do), and that's why they called him Ego. (Very few really saw deeply through Murph to see that there was more there than ego.) Ego is he whom most people related to when they related to Murph.

Now there was one thing extraordinary about Murph: he did want to know his self. That's why he ended up in the desert. Murph wanted to know himself, but not at the expense of his ego. He wanted to have it both ways, I suppose. Murph was like that -- wanting what he wanted the way he wanted it. It had to be his way. This is why Ego was so competitive. There was no other way to get (to be sure to get) what he wanted. Others had to be knocked out of the way, or Ego would be threatened. Ego had to be competitive in order to get his way, and had to get his way in order to be a success, and had to be a success in order to be Ego. So you can see that Ego really had no other choice. It was his nature to be number one. There was that sense of destiny about him.

But we have lost the story again. Murph did truly want to know his true self, but could not afford to know his self at the expense of his ego. He wanted to have both his self and his ego. Murph had not yet learned that this was not a both/and situation. So Murph naively decided to go to the desert where his ego would be safe while he set about the task of self-discovery.

Now this particular desert was a beautiful place to be. Ego was even proud of being there. And Murph found the peace and security he needed for his naive but risky undertaking. Murph was not sure how to go about this task he had set for himself, but he was fairly confident (naturally) that it would happen. Murph was anxious and eager.

Although the desert was beautiful, it was by no means an easy place to be. Murph was all alone, and egos don't like to be by themselves. They only grow in direct proportion to adulation from others. This is something Murph had not counted on. His ego was at stake already. Egos can't just be left alone unattended, and Murph could not attend to his ego and his self at the same time. Murph was almost on the point of having to make a choice (and it would have been a very painful choice), either letting his ego starve from inattention, or leaving the desert, which would have been a blow to his ego. But, as Providence would have it, Murph was spared his freedom. He had underestimated himself (which was not like him). Fantasies came to his aid. Ego didn't need real people all the time; imaginary people could suffice in a pinch, and sometimes they were even better. They always made Ego happy. So all Murph had to do was let his mind wander, and it always wandered in a direction satisfying to Ego. So Ego was very happy about being in the desert.

But Murph wasn't exactly content. Ego was happy, and so Murph was happy, but there was something nagging away at Murph that Ego could not have cared less about but which Murph felt pulling away at him. He was not accomplishing what he had set out to do. Ego took up all his time. It seemed that he could have to not only ignore Ego (who would put up a major fuss about that) but also do Ego in. Ego was just too demanding. Murph had never been aware of this before. And Murph couldn't just leave the desert either, and ignore the knowledge he had come to. He would always know how selfish Ego had been. He had not known this before. Before the desert, Ego was happy and Murph was not conscious that there may have been something wrong. Now he knew, and he disliked Ego -- but, after all, what could he do? He was Ego.

Well, we have been assuming that this was all Murph's problem. There was more wisdom in the desert than Murph had taken into it. That's what Murph had not yet realized. Murph thought that he was there on his own, alone. He approached this task of self-discovery as Ego had approached other tasks -- by himself. Ego always did everything by himself -- and did them quite well, I might add. What Murph had not realized is that he had undertaken a task which Ego could not handle. He was disappointed in Ego; Ego seemed weak. He was ashamed of Ego. Ego was supposed to be omnipotent but he was only a weakling. (Murph did not yet know that there may be degrees between those two extremes.) Murph's manhood was crumbling fast. And, although Murph was sick to his stomach about Ego, he wasn't quite ready to let him crumble either. Murph needed Ego. (After all, he was Ego, or so he thought. Murph had not yet experienced that there was more to him than Ego alone.)

Murph was panicky in the midst of Peace, and Peace only frightened him all the more. Murph had backed himself into a corner. He didn't want to stay in the desert; yet he couldn't leave. He didn't want to be with Ego; yet he couldn't kill him either. He couldn't hide because there was no one and no thing to run to, and even fantasies were no longer able to let him hide from his new knowledge. Murph was being forced to live with his self, and that is something Murph had never done before.

Murph had already learned a lot. He had wanted to discover his self but not at the expense of Ego, but he had learned that he had gratified Ego at the expense of his self. He had learned that Ego was selfish, and insecure, and weak -- and he had spent many, many years backing him up. In fact, if it hadn't been for Murph, where would Ego be? Ego was limited; he wasn't able to help Murph find his self. Murph wanted to get rid of Ego, but he didn't know how. Murph became depressed.

But Murph was learning something else, too, which kept slipping his mind, and understandably so, for he was all alone in the desert, or so he thought. Ego can't do this by himself. But is this a task Murph has to do by himself? Did he have to go it alone? He had friends. Perhaps they could help him where Ego had failed him. Of course Ego would have none of this. He didn't need anyone else (except for their admiration), and he was not about to ask for help. At this point Ego did not realize that Murph was ready to ask for help. Murph was ready to reach out for others. Murph was no longer going to live his life as Ego; Ego had lost the battle, although he was still waging the war, and Murph's fantasies still helped pacify him.

But Murph had almost imperceptibly come to a decision and, in that freely chosen reality, had come for the first time to be his self. Murph now knew that there was more to his self than his ego alone. Ego had also lost the war, even though he couldn't face quitting, and so he continued to wage it. But Murph had come to a knowledge over which Ego had no control: that there were others in the world besides himself, that there were other selves in the world besides his self, and that he could reach out to them and they could help where Ego couldn't. And, of course, he couldn't reach out and relate to them as Ego, because egos don't relate; they perform. So Murph would reach out to them with all that was within him, where Ego left off and he began. Murph was still experiencing his new self, but now he knew that people were more important to him than his ego was.

Murph still had one problem: he was in the desert, and there were no others around. Ego was about to have the last laugh. Murph's newfound self could do him no good, because a self is never a self by itself alone -- and there were no other selves around, or so Murph thought. Nor could Murph just pick up and leave the desert! One doesn't just call a cab or go to the phone. Murph felt very wise and very alone.

Murph felt so alone that he did something he had never done before. Murph prayed. (Murph was ordinary in this way; this is often what people do when they get desperate.) When I say that this is the first time that Murph prayed, this is not completely true. Murph had often prayed before, but he had prayed as Ego. And Ego had always been proud of the way Murph prayed; and so had many others, and Ego liked that. Prayer, in fact, had been a real trip for Ego. So, when I say that Murph prayed for the first time, I mean Murph prayed as Murph, as that vulnerable, needy, ordinary publican that he was. Murph didn't get down on his knees (Ego used to get off on that, but there had to be others around to see that, and there were no others around). Murph just prayed. I mean he reached out, and when he did there was Someone reaching back. Murph felt touched, but there was no one around.

Murph didn't regret the predicament he had gotten himself into. In some ways he had been himself for the first time. Murph was ready to leave the desert, humbled but not sad. Ego would go with him, but it would no longer be the same. Murph made three friends in the desert that day. He had made a choice, let go of his close identity with Ego, and made a friend of his self. In that moment friends back home became friends again; he let them be what Ego had feared. Ego liked admirers and had little use for friends. And when Murph could let go enough to let friendship step in, he made another Friend whom he will never forget. Sometimes he calls her Peace, sometimes Beauty.

Yes, Murph went home. But he did not leave Peace and Beauty behind. He took her along. Some people noticed a change in Murph; some didn't. Ego tried his old antics, and some admirers egged Ego on. But Murph had changed; Ego knew it, and Murph's friends knew it. It is true that most people stopped calling him Ego. They just called him plain of Murph -- a very, very ordinary man.

* * * * * *

Dear Ego,

  Right now it seems as if we no longer know each other anymore. At one time we were friends, so close that people couldn't tell us apart -- like Mutt and Jeff, I suppose. I think of you from time to time, but I have no regrets about our separation. It was one of the best things that has happened to me. I know you may not agree, but it is best for me.

  Hope you are doing OK.

Dear Murph,

  I still regret the day that we set our feet in that desert. Until then we had gotten along perfectly and never had a problem. I still can't understand what got into you, or how you could so easily put me aside. I am ready to take you back.

Dear Self,

  Well, here we are, together once again. For the first time, I think that I really recognize you. Thank you for staying close to me. I don't want to lose you.

  How strange, how unpredictable, life can be! In some ways, I suppose, I think of you as a relative. We are related. But you're closer to me than a relative is. A relative is someone who is related, and maybe closely. But you are me, therefore extremely close; yet someone to whom I can choose to relate as other, although you're not. We've got to become friends, get to know each other. I think of you like a relative because a relative can drift in and out of my life. The person is never completely "gone." The person is always a relative. One may not always be in relationship to the relative, and yet the relationship remains. It reminds me of being a child. When I was a kid, I felt close to some cousins. I didn't think of myself as "separate" from them. Then we lost contact and were out of touch for many years. But recently there's been the desire to get together again.

  It's almost that way with you. I think that I knew you as a kid. You're not a stranger anyway. Yet we "grew apart," lost touch with each other. But now I've found you, and I don't want that kind of separation to take place again. I don't want to lose you. That's why I think of you as a relative. It would be easy to move in and out of each other's lives without ever consciously letting ourselves become friends, become one. What I'm saying is that I want us to be friends.

  Ego is gone, I hope. I have no desire for him to return. He and I can't be friends; he always has to be boss. So now there's just you and me. You are my truest self, my deepest spirit. I want to hear what you have to say. I don't want a lid to slip over you and block you out. Someone, somewhere, put a barrier, a lid, over you, half way down inside myself. But who? when? where?

  Perhaps I did it, because I was scared. What was that cover that blocked you off from me, cemented you into another room? It was probably my ego. But where did he come from? If I am correct, then you are like a kid, my kid, and Ego wasn't there in the beginning. He came between us somewhere along the way and smothered you, pushed you out of my life. I must have created him, and I did so because I was afraid. But what's there to be afraid of?

  We simply must spend more time together.