We all have our own images of greatness as these pertain to virtue and saintliness. We picture, for instance, St. Francis of Assisi kissing a leper; or Mother Teresa publicly hugging a dying beggar; or John Paul II standing before a crowd of millions and telling them how much he loves them; or Therese of Lisieux telling a fellow community member who has been deliberately cruel to her how much she loves her; or even of the iconic Veronica in the crucifixion scene, who amidst all the fear and brutality of the crucifixion rushes forward and wipes the face of Jesus.
There are a number of common features within these pictures that speak of exceptional character, but there’s another common denominator here that speaks of exceptionality in a different way, that is, each of these people had an exceptionally strong self-image and an exceptionally strong self-confidence.
It takes more than just a big heart to reach across what separates you from a leper; it also takes a strong self-confidence. It takes more than an empathic heart to publicly hug a dying beggar; it also takes a very robust self-image. It takes more than mere compassion to stand before millions of people and announce that you love them and that it’s important for them to hear this from you; it also takes the rare inner confidence. It takes more than a saintly soul to meet deliberate cruelty with warm affection; it also requires that first you yourself have experienced deep love in your life. And it takes more than simple courage to ignore the threat and hysteria of a lynch mob so as to rush into an intoxicated crowd and lovingly dry the face of the one they hate; it takes someone who has herself first experienced a strong love from someone else. We must first be loved in order to love. We can’t give what we haven’t got.
Great men and women like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, John Paul II, and Therese of Lisieux are also people with a stunning self-confidence. They have no doubt that God has specially gifted them and they have the confidence to publicly display those gifts. The sad fact is that many of us, perhaps most of us, simply lack sufficient self-image and self-confidence to do what they did. Perhaps our hearts are just as loving as theirs and our empathy just as deep, but, for all kinds of reasons, not least because of how we have been wounded and the shame and reticence that are born from that, it is existentially impossible for us to, like these spiritual giants, stand up in front of the world and say: “I love you — and it’s important that you hear this from me!” Our tongues would surely break off as an inner voice would be saying: “Who do you think you are? Who are you to think the world needs to hear of your special love?”
Truth be told, too often it isn’t virtue that’s our problem; it’s self-confidence. Mostly we aren’t bad, we’re just wounded. William Wordsworth once said something to the effect that we often judge a person to be cold when he or she is only wounded. How true.
Thankfully God doesn’t judge by appearances. God reads the heart and discerns between malice and wound, between coldness and lack of self-confidence. God knows that no one can love unless he or she has first been loved, and that very few, perhaps no one, can publicly display the heart of a giant, the courage of a hero, and the love of saint when that big heart, courage, and love haven’t, first, been felt in an affective and effective way inside of that person’s own life.
So what’s helpful in knowing this? A deeper self-understanding is always helpful and there can be a consolation, though hopefully not a rationalization, in knowing that our hesitancy to step out publicly and do things like Mother Teresa is perhaps more rooted in our lack of a healthy ego than in some kind of selfishness and egoism. But of course, after that consolation comes the challenge to throw away the crutches we have been using to cope with our wounds and our crippled self-image so as to begin to let our heart, courage, and love manifest themselves more publicly. Our tongues won’t break off if we speak out loud about our love and concern, but we will only know that once we actually do it. But, to do that, we will have to first step through a paralyzing shame to a self-abandon that up to now we haven’t mastered.
And there’s a lesson in this too for our understanding of ego within spirituality. We’ve invariably seen ego as bad and identified it with egotism, but that’s overly simplistic because spiritual giants generally have strong egos, though without being egotists. Ironically too many of us are crippled by too little ego and that’s why we never do great things as the spiritual giants do. Egoism is bad, but a healthy, robust ego is not.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.