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Living the Spiritual Disciplines and Virtues in 12-Step Recovery

Reflections in Recovery

Dying to Self, or Ego Deflation (Posted April 10, 2013)

Some seven summers ago I was playing a game of cards with a dearly loved relative when I saw a side of me I didn’t even know existed. I’d been winning game after game night after night and hadn’t thought anything of it. I’d always played to win in whatever I did. I had looked at it not so much as wanting to win as striving to be good at what I was doing, striving for excellence.

This time, however, I could tell from the expression on her face that Connie wasn’t having a lot of fun. It hadn’t occurred to me (because I usually tended to win) that if you keep losing all the time you couldn’t possibly enjoy yourself a hell of lot. I realized for the first time that I was an extremely competitive guy and that in my concern to win, I had never paid any attention to the experience that the person I was beating was having. I had been totally self-centered about the matter.

That’s when I decided that, from then on, whenever I played a game, I would interrupt any winning streak I was having and allow the other person to win enough times so as to keep more of an even score. He or she of course wouldn’t know the difference. I was beginning to think less of myself and more of the other person.

That worked well for a while. Then one night, the shoe was on the other foot. Connie just kept on winning and after a long string of loses I felt defeated and demoralized. At first, I couldn’t understand my reaction. But as I took inventory and meditated on the experience before going to bed (Steps 10 & 11), I realized what was wrong: it’s harder to lose naturally (to actually be beaten) than by design. 

When I play and I have won a few games in a row and then I make a decision to lose a game so as not to make my opponent feel bad, I don’t really feel that I have lost. I don’t feel beaten. The other person has not played better than me. My ego has not been bruised. I had made progress by getting to the point where the way the other person felt was more important than my feeling good about myself by winning. The next step in my dying to self was not to feel bad when I really did lose but to feel good for my “opponent” (shouldn’t even see the person in those terms) instead. This is harder because it involves the emotions more than the will.

I also found that, in exercising the will to lose for the sake of the other person, if I don’t take care there is the risk of being tempted to pride by virtue of my virtue: I am still “better” than the other person, I am just not letting her see it, and this very “humility” shows how “superior” (in this case morally) I am. That of course is a disguised form of pride, which, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, is essentially competitive.

That’s why I need to always act out of love rather than out of a desire to be good or virtuous, for apart from other-directed love such a desire can easily become self-serving. That’s also why in any good that I do I need to give the credit to God as the Higher Power who does it in me. Make me a channel, says St. Francis. No more. And no less.

[Image: Dr. Bob and Bill W., two Vermont Yankees who couldn't be more different from each other — except that they both drank.]


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