We live in a world wherein most everything over-stimulates our grandiosity, even as we are handed fewer and fewer tools to deal with that.
Several years ago, Robert L. Moore wrote a significant book entitled Facing the Dragon. The dragon that most threatens us, he believes, is the dragon of our own grandiosity, that sense inside us that has us believe that we are singularly special and destined for greatness. This condition besets us all. Simply put, each of us, all seven billion of us on this planet, cannot help but feel that we are the centre of the universe. And, given that this is mostly unacknowledged and we are generally ill-equipped to deal with it, this makes for a scary situation. This isn’t a recipe for peace and harmony, but for jealousy and conflict.
And yet this condition isn’t our fault, nor is it in itself a moral flaw in our nature. Our grandiosity comes from the way God made us. We are made in the image and likeness of God. This is the most fundamental, dogmatic truth inside the Judaeo-Christian understanding of the human person. However, it is not to be conceived of simplistically, as some beautiful icon stamped inside our souls. Rather it needs to be conceived of in this way: God is fire, infinite fire, an energy that is relentlessly seeking to embrace and infuse all of creation. And that fire is inside of us, creating in us a feeling of godliness, an intuition that we too have divine energies, and a pressure to be singularly special and to achieve some form of greatness.
In a manner of speaking, to be made in the image and likeness of God is to have a microchip of divinity inside us. This constitutes our greatest dignity but also creates our biggest problems. The infinite does not sit calmly inside the finite. Because we have divine energy inside us we do not make easy peace with this world — our longings and desires are too grandiose. Not only do we live in that perpetual disquiet that Augustine highlighted in his famous dictum — “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” — but this innate grandiosity has us forever nursing the belief that we are special, uniquely destined, and born to somehow stand out and be recognized and acknowledged for our specialness.
And so all of us are driven outward by a divine gene to somehow make a statement with our lives, to somehow create a personal immortality, and to somehow create some artifact of specialness that the whole world has to take note of. This isn’t an abstract concept; it’s utterly earthy. The evidence for this is seen in every newscast, in every bombing, in every daredevil stunt, and in every situation where someone seeks to stand out. It’s seen too in the universal hunger for fame, in the longing to be known, and in the need to be recognized as unique and special.
But this grandiosity, of itself, isn’t our fault, nor is it necessarily a moral flaw. It comes from the way we are made, ironically from what is highest and best in us. The problem is that, today, we generally aren’t given the tools to grapple with it generatively. More and more, we live in a world within which, for countless reasons, our grandiosity is being over-stimulated, even as this is not being recognized and even as we are being given less and less the religious and psychological tools with which to handle that. What are these tools?
Psychologically, we need images of the human person that allow us to understand ourselves healthily but in ways that include an acceptance of our limitations, our frustrations, our anonymity, and the fact that our lives must make gracious space for everyone else’s life. Psychologically, we must be given the tools to understand our own life, admittedly as unique and special, but still as one life among millions of other unique and special lives. Psychologically, we need better tools for handling our grandiosity.
Religiously, our faith and our churches need to offer us an understanding of the human person that gives us the insights and the disciplines (discipleship) to enable us to live out our uniqueness and our specialness, even as we make peace with our own mortality, our limitations, our frustrations, our anonymity, and create space for the uniqueness and specialness of everyone else’s life. In essence, religion has to give us the tools to healthily access the divine fire inside us and act healthily on the talents and gifts God has graced us with, but with the concomitant discipline to humbly acknowledge that these gifts are not our own, that they come from God, and that all we are and achieve is God’s grace. Only then will we not be killed by failure and inflated by success.
The task in life, Robert Lax suggests, is not so much finding a path in the woods as of finding a rhythm to walk in.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.