St. Basil the Great, in letter 156, responds to a priest asking for advice and help to resolve a conflict between two parties—we don’t know whom or what the parties are. St. Basil is asked to intervene in person, or at least by a letter. St. Basil’s response to this priest instructs us on the spiritual disease of self-importance (which is what some Fathers refer to as self-esteem).
Self-importance is a tricky disease to diagnose, not in others, but in oneself. The problem lies in the fact that often (but not always) those who suffer from the spiritual sickness of self-importance are in positions that are actually important. Those of us who teach and/or lead in the Church or in politics or in education or in medicine or in business are indeed in positions of importance. However, it’s not the fact that we are in positions of importance that causes us to suffer from self-importance, but being in such a position does make it much harder for us to diagnose our disease.
Self-importance, according to St. Basil, is a spiritual disease that “matures,” that gets stronger over time. It is a disease that becomes “rooted by habit in the mind” for those who suffer from it. It begins, in my experience, after life thrusts us into a position of authority or importance. At first, we are timid and uncertain, we know our weaknesses, we know we can only try to do our best. However, almost right away, others begin treating us differently. Others seek our advice, follow our instructions, are subject to our decisions (grades, assignments, schedules, opportunities or responsibilities that we now have the authority to distribute). Now we are treated as an important person (often in small or subtle ways—but it doesn’t take much for this disease to get started).
The disease begins with a shift in my self perception. I start to see myself as the personification of my role. That is, the honour and respect that comes to me because of my position, I start to ascribe to myself; or as a friend of mine in California would say it, we start to believe our own press. This is a very subtle shift. After all, I might think, “I did come up with the idea that was so successful, that saved the company all that money, that avoided that crises, that resolved that problem.” Or even more subtly I think, “I have seen this before and I know how to fix it.” I start to think that the honour and respect that come to me because I do an adequate or maybe even a good job in the role life has assigned me, that this honour and respect somehow are because of or due to me. At least this is how the disease of self-importance has begun to grow in my heart.
Then all it takes is time. Self-importance matures, as St. Basil says. And the more self-importance matures, the less I am able to see it. And the less I see it, the less I look to myself as the possible instigator, agitator or perpetuator of the conflicts in the relationships around me. Self-importance makes me suspicious of others. I see others as the problem. After all, I think, “I know what I am doing.” St. Basil says this:
“Self-importance, when rooted by habit in the mind, cannot be destroyed by one man, by one single letter, or in a short time. Unless there be some arbiter in whom all parties have confidence, suspicions and collisions will never altogether cease.”
Here St. Basil points out the difficulty of healing conflict rooted in self-importance. And in my experience, much conflict is rooted in self-importance. Everything from sibling rivalry to marriage conflicts to disputes between politicians and hierarchs, so much conflict festers unresolved because self-importance has planted suspicion in our minds. Because we suspect the others, we cannot see our own contribution to the conflict. Like Adam and Eve after their fall, we are sure it is someone else’s fault. Without help from the outside, we spend our life in a sea of conflict that seems always to be someone else’s fault.
St. Basil suggests as the way out of such conflict an arbiter in whom both parties have confidence. But such an arbiter is hard to find precisely because of self-importance. “Who,” I might say in my self-importance, “knows the situation better than I?” And even if an arbiter is found, I lose confidence in them when they don’t see things my way. Such is the blindness caused by the disease of self-importance.
There is, however, hope. Even though it is very difficult to self diagnose self-importance, it is possible to begin to be healed and thus begin to be able to see my self-importance if I am willing to humble myself and take a couple of proactive steps.
The first step is to proactively assume that I am a major cause of any conflict I am involved in—even (especially!) if I don’t see or know how. This does not by itself resolve the conflict, but it does begin to shift my focus. People tend to find what they are looking for, so if I am looking for the ways that I have caused or perpetuate or irritate a conflict, there is a good chance I will start to find some of them. This is not as easy as it sounds. I naturally assume I am right, so I have to force myself to assume that I am not right in ways that I don’t see. And once I assume this, my focus shifts and I begin to see ways I can repent, things I can do to lessen the tension of a conflict. By assuming I am wrong in ways I don’t see, I can sometimes start to see them.
The second step to break free from self-importance is to take seriously the counter-intuitive advice of others. When I am blinded by self-importance, every piece of advice that I do not already agree with seems wrong, seems counter-intuitive. To overcome self-importance (which by it’s very nature I don’t realize I suffer from) I have to very intentionally choose to take seriously the advice of others, especially advice that disagrees with the way I already see things.
This does not mean that I automatically accept advice I don’t agree with. What it means is that I take seriously the advice of others, believing that I am probably wrong in ways that I don’t yet see. And especially if the advice comes from a very respected person or from multiple persons, I assume that this advice is more probably right, or at least partially right, than my own perspective. I still may not see the connections, but assuming I don’t see clearly leads to deeper inquiry and self reflection which often results in self revelations I had not expected.
Finally, because self-importance is so hard to self diagnose, how can we begin to suspect that we suffer from it? I suggest we follow the lead of St. Basil’s letter here. Whenever I find myself as a significant party in a conflict, or especially if conflict seems to follow me from one relationship to another or from one context to another, then there is a good chance that I am suffering from the spiritual disease of self-importance. Like most diseases, you don’t ever really see the disease itself, just the symptoms. And seeing the symptoms, we treat for the disease.
St. Basil warns us that spiritual diseases that have taken time to mature, also take time to heal. The spiritual illness of self-importance often takes a lifetime to cure. But, thank God, there are some things we can begin to do to find relief. With the help of the Great Physician, no spiritual sickness is so severe that it cannot be treated and even healed while we are still in this earthly life.