Did you ever have the feeling that there were two opposing forces within you? Well you’re not alone. In our last article, we discussed how to begin a happier life. In this article, we will discuss the struggle between good and evil within all of us.
St. Paul calls this dilemma the new man vs. the old man. He recognized that we have two selves dwelling within us – a lower self and a higher self. St. Paul writes:
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”Eph 4:22-24
So what or who are these two selves?
Our lower self is the part of us that is ego-centric and craves immediate gratification. When our lower self is in control, we want to do whatever satisfies us in the moment or makes us look good. The higher self, on the other hand, is the part of us that seeks more permanent things and is directed towards others..
The image of these two selves in conflict has been humorously portrayed in cartoons. As in the case of Fred Flintstone who had a small figure of himself with a halo and wings standing above his right shoulder, and another small figure of himself with devil’s horns and a tail above his left shoulder. As he considered a mischievous deed, the two selves gave counsel – each according to his appropriate desires and thinking processes.
Strange as it may seem, this portrayal is not far from the reality many of us experience when we are in that long developmental period where both the higher and lower selves seem to coexist on an equal level. Even though the higher and lower selves tug at us with seeming equality, one will win – and when it does, it will incite us to action.
A serious and profound portrayal of this process is given by J.R.R. Tolkien through the creature Gollum in the movie The Lord of the Rings. His higher self (portrayed as the young river hobbit, Sméagol) feels pity for Frodo and Sam and sympathy for their noble mission, but his lower self (portrayed by the old and withered Gollum) is mesmerized by his addiction to the power of the ring and his anger toward Frodo and Sam.
As Gollum/Sméagol debates with himself, his facial and vocal expressions change from Sméagol to Gollum and back again. Ultimately his lower self wins, and he resolves to betray Frodo and Sam (who had in many ways become his friends) and take the ring for himself.
It is said that Tolkien actually wept as he created this scene – because every man (like Sméagol) has the capacity to reach his higher self and complete a noble mission, but so many (like Gollum) do not – preferring instead to lapse into their addictions to the deadly sins (the power of the ring).
So how do we choose to follow the higher self over the lower self?
Temptation has immense power over the thoughts and desires of the lower self, but has very little power over the thoughts and desires of the higher self. Thus, if we can develop and reinforce our higher self, then we can disempower the temptations coming from both our imagination and from the evil spirit.
Cultivating the higher self substantially empowers our “no” to temptation. However, is more easily said than done. Thus, in next post of the Moral Conversion Series, we will explore how to channel the effect of our subconscious on everyday decisions towards moral conversion.