Some years ago as I walked the halls of the massive sprawling medical campus where I did my residency training, I came upon a sign that caught my attention because of its potential double meaning. The sign said, “ID Processing,” which is the office where ID badges are made. But I thought to myself, “Where’s the office for EGO Processing? That’s what we really need around here.”
(If you don’t get the joke, then look up Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche. I remember my parents told me when I was a kid that if you have to explain a joke, then it wasn’t funny.)
Anyone familiar with healthcare team dynamics will know that the doctor is the most likely person on the team to have a big ego. This seems to be particularly true for surgeons and other proceduralists, but I have met doctors from many specialties who seem to have an inflated view of themselves. (For the record, I have also known many surgeons who are kind and humble people.)
There are many reasons for doctors to have inflated egos, and much has been written on the subject. The proposed causes include baseline personality characteristics, the conditioning of medical training, and the lack of effective leadership skills training. Also, having a specialized knowledge base and skill set changes the way people treat you and the way you think about yourself, especially when that skill set is in high demand.
But there is a difference between having confidence in yourself and in your skills (which is generally a good thing), and having an inflated ego (which is considered to be a bad thing). Is the difference simply a matter of degree, or is there some qualitative difference? And what is actually bad about having a big ego?
Beware of Pride
In April 1989, Ezra Taft Benson, who was president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time, offered a masterful discourse on the subject of pride. It is a tour de force of scriptural commentary and practical application, and marked a sea change in our understanding of the topic. It was also among the last sermons he gave to the Church before he passed away a few years later.
The premise of his message was that pride, as the term is used in the scriptures, is always a negative quality, and is a gateway sin leading to all other sins. He is not talking about the glowing feeling we have when our kids do something to demonstrate how talented and capable they are. The pride of the scriptures is a dark thing, and “there is no such thing as righteous pride.”
He offers a definition of pride, as the term is used in the scriptures: “The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means ‘hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.’ […] Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of ‘my will and not thine be done.'” President Benson then elaborates for several minutes, explaining in detail with dozens of examples and scriptural references, how the prideful state of competitive opposition poisons our relationships with God and with our fellowmen, and leads to many other sins, including disobedience, selfishness, contention, disunity, and even the downfall of societies and nations. Perhaps most troubling is his assertion that “Pride is a very misunderstood sin, and many are sinning in ignorance. […] Pride is a sin that can readily be seen in others but is rarely admitted in ourselves.” Pride is found, with varying manifestations, among the rich and poor, the powerful and weak, and among the educated and the ignorant.
But this is not a sermon of doom and gloom; it has a hopeful message. “The antidote for pride is humility—meekness, submissiveness. It is the broken heart and contrite spirit. […] God will have a humble people. Either we can choose to be humble or we can be compelled to be humble. […] Let us choose to be humble.” Then he lists many examples, again with copious scriptural references, showing how we can choose to live our lives with humility, and concludes with a plea to the members of the Church to purge themselves of pride. I have studied and pondered President Benson’s teachings about pride many times, and every time I learn some new way that I can improve.
Back to the Hospital
President Benson’s discussion of pride illuminated general principles which are broadly applicable to non-religious settings. For instance, he taught that “Unity is impossible for a proud people.” The virtues of humility and meekness promote cooperation among team members and leaders whether their work is religious or secular in nature. A humble doctor can be just as capable and skilled as a proud doctor, and can have just as much confidence in his own ability, but his meekness makes him able to accept correction and acknowledge his own mistakes, and gives him a greater advantage in leading his team.
As a doctor I need to be humble enough to accept that I have human weaknesses, that I am not capable of endless work, that I will sometimes make mistakes, that I am not the expert on every aspect of my clinical operations, and that I can’t do everything by myself. I need to trust and appreciate my team, and each of the members who provide essential input to help us accomplish our work together. This is really not about me; it is about doing the best we can as a team to help our patients.
Many years ago when I was 18 years old I sat in front of my house in a dark mood, because just a few days before I had finally recognized the sin of pride in myself. I didn’t like what I saw. Pride had led me from one sin to another over the previous years, and it had disrupted and corrupted my personal relationships with friends and family members. I sat on the front porch alone, feeling small and miserable, and I leafed through my scriptures to find some guidance. After prayer and some pondering, I was led to read Doctrine and Covenants section 112, where I heard the voice of the Lord speaking to my soul in these words: “Verily I say unto you, there have been some few things in thine heart and with thee with which I, the Lord, was not well pleased. Nevertheless, inasmuch as thou hast abased thyself thou shalt be exalted; therefore, all thy sins are forgiven thee.” This section was directed to Thomas B. Marsh, whose principal sin was pride, the same as mine. And the advice the Lord gave to him sank deeply into my soul: “Be thou humble; and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand, and give thee answer to thy prayers.”
This lesson was burned into my soul that evening, and ever since then I have been on the alert for pride creeping into my soul. It has caught me unawares a few times, but I have been much better at chasing it away than I was before, and my life has been so much happier. The hospital where I work doesn’t have an office for EGO Processing, but that’s okay because my family, the Church, and the scriptures serve that purpose for me. I thank the Lord for showing me my pride, and helping me choose to be humble. With all of my heart I want to qualify for his promise: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:3,4).