Letters to Our Conscience
The Ego and Jesus
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"The problem with the world is the ego!" . . . Those were the words with which Don Alfredo Rivera caught my attention early one morning while I was having breakfast in a coffee shop in Old San Juan, reading the newspaper as I sipped my coffee. I looked around, and none of the six or seven customers at the tables had looked up to see who was talking. "Another crazy old guy," they probably thought.
Don Alfredo somehow realized that he’d be welcome, so he sat down at my table. Although I didn’t know him, I was not upset by this. Staring straight into my eyes, he said he knew that I’d be receptive to what he had to say, and it was then that I saw in the gleam in his eyes—eyes sunk into his head, peering out from the wrinkles in his aged skin—a peculiar vitality that belied the obvious physical decay that the years had inflicted on him.
"What is the ego?" I asked.
"You know; you’re just asking me to test me," don Alfredo replied. "I know you know a lot. You know where I was born? . . . I was born in the heart of Puerto Rico, up in the mountains. . . ."
That was the beginning of a friendship that was fated not to last long. I met him last year, and he died recently, leaving me with the memory of several interesting conversations that I will always treasure. Don Alfredo was self-taught; he had overcome the geographical determinism of the mountains and the social determinism of poverty and had made himself an educated, cultured man. His passion was mysticism—he believed in karma and in numerology. He had the gift of raising the self-esteem of any interlocutor he conversed with. He was a very special man. . . .
He was right when he blamed the world’s woes on the ego. When we allow the ego to be more than an aid to us in our daily survival, both individually and collectively, then it becomes an element that distorts reality and creates many problems, for the ego is the cause of limitations and conflicts.
Throughout history, the dynamics of religious belief has caused atrocities and aberrations (from which civilization has not yet been able to free itself) to be promoted by the collective ego of believers—usually led by the ego of the most orthodox members within any given religion, who are very often motivated by ignorance and the desire for the prestige and power that religions have always bestowed upon their hierarchies of leadership.
And for these terrible, aberrant actions they have always used God as a justification—that, indeed, is the most aberrant part of it. . .
To truly achieve the benefit that comes with the comprehension of that marvelous process that is our life and our relationship with the Deity, we must free ourselves as much as possible from the limitations imposed by the ego and by the cultural baggage that we have inherited. Religion is a human creation, subject to our human limitations.
To call any religion "divine" and to insist upon its hegemony over all others is an error, just as it is an error to judge Jesus of Nazareth by the deplorable events perpetrated by Christians down through history, especially in the Middle Ages. . . The detractors of Christianity often justify their skepticism by using that dark time in history, plus many other ephemeral references and allusions, to twist and blacken the sublimity that is the legacy left to us by Jesus in his life, works, and teachings.
Jesus of Nazareth has had a greater influence on human history than any other man; this is a fact that even his greatest detractors cannot deny. The fact that our calendar begins counting from his birth shows the importance that humankind has given his person.
Throughout history, Christianity has been the subject of constant controversy, by both atheists and members of other religions, and in turn, the actions of some Christians have been the cause of many barren controversies and castings of blame. We should, once and for all, concentrate on valuing the merits and benefits that all religions have bestowed on the human race, and end the deplorable practice of confrontation.
There is a great difference between religious beliefs and true spirituality. Many beliefs are imposed by our cultural heritage and the environment in which we grow up. When they are stubbornly and intransigently proclaimed, they are the cause of disastrous limitations at the individual level and of countless conflicts at the collective level. Spirituality, on the other hand, is achieved through appropriate action, reflection, and introspection, which are always a source of harmony, not conflicts.
Through well-directed study and the use of reason and logic we can raise ourselves above those limitations that we are bound by when we cling too tightly to beliefs.
Reason and logic teach us that in Jesus of Nazareth we have a personality who transcends time and space, and that that transcendence could only have been obtained by the wisdom of his teachings and, principally, by his works, real events that validated his preaching beyond any possible doubt. . . Had Jesus not been a man of works, logic tells us that he would never have been able to exercise the influence that he has had for the betterment of humanity. Works, not words, are what validate his influence and permanence in our cultural and spiritual heritage.
We should understand that the Scriptures, both of the Old Testament and the New, were written by men; they are the word of God but written by men. Giving absolute belief to each of its words, perceiving each one to be absolutely divine, is an exercise in naiveté, as is confusing the metaphorical nature of countless words and passages in the Bible and interpreting them in an exclusively literal way. That is a nearsightedness that limits us.
A great number of the Scriptures are poetry, for poetry is the divine language, the language of the spirit. It is in the understanding of sophisticated suggestiveness and through genuine emotional and intellectual effort that one is able to interpret where the key lies that will allow us to fully understand them. Their words are as much to be felt as to be interpreted.
There are many metaphorical areas for which the code that will allow us to decipher them, to understand their true meaning, is grace, conferred by spiritual development. And spiritual development is a thing that tenacity and constancy in our studies will enable us to obtain.
The literal interpretation of words applies to everything that has to do with our material world. Those things having to do with the transcendent sphere, which by its very nature is intrinsically subjective, must be felt in order to be understood, and that process is limited by our own ability to perceive and by the effort we are willing to put forth in order to achieve it. Many of the differences between the various religious groups are the product of the differing ways in which their founders perceived the meaning of the Holy Scriptures and put forth that understanding in doctrines, precepts, and dogmas.
It is through our own emotional and intellectual effort that we can grasp and internalize the essence of the Master’s message in the scriptures. That is the source, and it is at our disposal—let us drink of its water, for that water is life. . .
In the New Testament the evangelists left us a marvelous testimony of Jesus’ words, acts, and miracles. The fact that the evangels were written long after his human existence ended should not discredit them, as their detractors allege, but rather give them greater credit. The intrinsic wisdom of the parables and language, the richness of their passages and their great literary fluidity give them value and legitimize them. The divine touch, combined with the excellence of Jesus’ life and the abundance of his legacy, made it possible, even many, many years after his crucifixion, for so much information to be assembled for the benefit of all humanity.
With his humility, wisdom, love, and total devotion, Jesus showed us the sublime and true way of controlling and vanquishing the ego, and he showed us this in a way that can leave us no doubt. If what Don Alfredo said that morning about the ego is true—if it is "the problem of the world"—it is also true that Jesus of Nazareth is the supreme solution to that problem. . .
Juan San Emeterio