Heschel: “There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of the creation of [humanity]. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which is devoted to the creation of the physical universe, [humanity] is described as having been created in the image and likeness of God. In the second chapter, which tells us of the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, [humanity] is described as having been formed out of the dust of the earth. Together, image and dust express the polarity [in human nature].”
In the counseling clinic you will find two types of clients: those who are ashamed of themselves and regard others generally as not to be trusted, and those who are conceited with themselves and regard others generally as not to be trusted. Both of them will typically have relationship issues, be chronically unhappy in life, and will either be in therapy for a long time or else jump in and out, looking for the magic trick that no counselor can provide. Fix me.
As I have already suggested, the persistent problems of middle-class mental health in America today are likely a complication of our Western fixation with ego. Instead of following a more contemplative line of research into the spiritual intelligence that grounds us in present reality, Western “psychology” has in fact abandoned the soul (psyche) in favor of personality development and its organizational center, the ego. From the vantage-point of the strained and conflicted ego, any threat to its executive control and perpetual reign is perceived as a problem.
Ironically, then, we have come to prefer experiences of ego-inflation to genuine self-transcendence; what we are has been eclipsed by who we are. Experiences of love, wonder, inspiration and faith – all of which require that we let go of “me” in release to a larger mystery – are seen as threatening and make us anxious. The divine ideal of our own higher nature (god) becomes severed as the object of our aspiration and becomes, not a force for waking and clarifying our dormant virtue, but rather a source of judgment, shame and condemnation. The “God beyond god” is inaccessible to the degree that we insist on saving ourselves.
On the other side of this existential divide – this illusion of duality generated by Captain Ego – is the body and its realm of instinct, mucus and blood (yuck). Strange urges and powerful moods take us by surprise, and much of our shame for falling short of god’s demands is hooked into our bodies. But the body is also in time, and time is passing, and passing time is mortality, and mortality means death – and who wants that?!
The cosmic force of entropy, which is constantly pulling at the heels of higher order so as to reach simpler and more stable arrangements, is also at work on our bodies. As a living composition of physical matter, the body will eventually succumb to this downward pull of mortality and return as dust to dust. In reality this is a marvelous thing, and it might be appreciated as the descending arc of our recycling universe, straining against the upward push of evolution along its ascending arc – a scientific yin and yang that strive together in the beautiful balance of all things.
But again, if ego is attached to the body, then I am going down as well – which is unacceptable. So I dress it up to look younger, take supplements to extend its life, primp, tuck and cinch up its sagging weight. I will not be dust … I will not! What is really an astonishing miracle of matter becomes instead a death sentence, a damnable anchor holding me in time. Thankfully, religion has provided me a way out of this mess, with its doctrine of immortality and the promise of everlasting life.
What would happen, what would it be like if we could embrace this polarity in our human nature? How different would our lives be if we were able – really it comes down to whether or not we are willing – to transcend the ego and move more effortlessly (less anxiously) through the frontiers of body and soul? Can we affirm the image of god in ourselves, and in each other, without becoming self-inflated? Can we embrace mortality and learn to appreciate the fleeting moments and limited time we have?
Not to separate ego from body, and not to confuse ego with soul – this is wisdom. We harbor a divine image, but we are even now passing into dust.