Speaking of oneself all the time—in other words, doing things to attract attention to oneself and impress others—is a weakness in character. Of course, there are times when one needs to express himself or herself. For instance, prayer is a time when one stands before God and pours out their inner feelings to Him. The human being is a masterpiece of the Creator; each human carries lines and patterns that indicate to the Artist Who created them. The human, in the words of Bediuzzaman, is an index of all existence. When we can deeply scrutinize the human, we can testify to how wonderful a creation they are, how unique they are with their reason, spirit, heart, willpower, conscience, and consciousness. What is expected of the human is to recognize the source of all these qualities, be grateful to Him, glorify His Majesty, and address Him in full awareness of being a servant. It is required of a servant that he or she acknowledges their position vis-à-vis the Divine and that all in their possession in fact belong to their true Owner. Expressing oneself to God with such consciousness is only commendable.
What is not commendable is when a person comes forward at every opportunity to draw attention to themselves with their posture, behavior, thoughts, and even with their prayer and worship, so they can attain others’ admiration. What actually a person does when he or she shows off with their virtues and qualifications is that they forget their real source and claim ownership of them. They are, as it were, confiscating what in fact belongs to God, whether they are aware of it or not.
Those who presumptuously chase admiration and applause always make all kinds of turns and twists, so the conversation circles around them. When they speak or write, they imply their self-proclaimed qualities, if they cannot do it directly. They would produce art just so to show others how art should look; when they write something, everybody should read and praise it—they would not welcome negative criticism. If they happen to mention the All-Glorified name of the Almighty, they’d still seek some credit out of it. When they lecture from the pulpit about God, what they are really after is to show how talented they are to the congregation. This is why they raise their voice; this is why they pound the pulpit as they speak. Their lifestyle, cars, homes, every object they use is a tool for them to speak about themselves. While doing so, they manage to camouflage their ostentation—sometimes even with an artificial humility.
These people sick with showing off always wish for others to speak about him or her, too. Their own efforts are not enough; they keep other people by their side to cheer for them; they can even build institutions for this. Conferences or books that do not mention their name have no value in their eyes.
These poor people are also very jealous. They are extremely disturbed when others are praised. They may say how much they admire somebody to his or her face, but behind their back, they conspire to humiliate them. They highlight others’ weak spots, so their value can shine brighter. They dig the ground around them, so they can stand taller. All such behavior leads nowhere but to disaster.
Subduing the ego and exercising willpower
Our best qualities are all from God. We might have an exceptional career, vast knowledge, sprawling wealth, and countless skills; we can have all of these only if we use what God blesses us with and if God opens the pathways for us. Besides, whether we are making the best of these blessings in the most efficient way possible is not an easy question to answer.
All these skills and qualities should be utilized not to speak about oneself but to speak about the One who gave them to us. Our voice, words, looks, and pose should pour out meanings about the Almighty. When we speak, we should speak words of Divine knowledge and love. Those who listen should grow in enthusiasm for and connection with God. Each of our speeches should be like a prayer about His uniqueness.
Saving oneself from this sickness is dependent on “reducing oneself to zero”—in other words, making humility one’s character. This is possible with self-discipline maintained for a long time. Humility is not easy to adopt into one’s nature, but one has to force themselves into it. This sickness of self-admiration is related to our willpower; so is the effort to prevent it. Only by exercising discipline can we change our character in the long run.
A true believer should bury underground all manifestations of self-admiration—bury them deep and put rocks on them. This is what mystical traditions are about. People in Sufi lodges used to be taught how to bring their carnal soul under control. Practices like spiritual retreats, fasting, and journeying on this path are meant to free people from traits of egotism and arrogance, so they can adorn with beautiful character—to make them follow the proofs of Divine knowledge (marifatullah) and thus come to know God and love Him (muhabbatullah). These practices helped them acknowledge that everything is from Him and realize His grandiosity versus how small they are.
Sadly, people are not undergoing any such spiritual nurturing in our times. Egos are not purified, hearts are not cleansed. Carnal souls cannot be brought under control. Instead of taming them, many people make themselves the beast their carnal souls ride. This can be considered both at the individual and societal level. Such a sickness can easily spread among members of a nation or community which considers itself as a legendary group of heroes. Affiliation with a community, membership to a school of thought, an institution, a university, even to a profession can inflate people’s ego and make them see themselves as superior, sometimes without being aware of this situation. They always speak of their own legends and heroisms. This may reach a point where they become megalomaniac, but since everyone in the community is debilitated with the same sickness, none of them notices anything.
All these symptoms indicate the presence of a sickness in the soul. As our body gets sick, so can our soul. Sicknesses in the soul are more difficult to cure than in the body, demanding more time and effort. To heal them, people should consult both psychologists and spiritual teachers, who might be able to see with the light of faith and detect the weak points.
Every human is created with such gaps in their soul. These gaps can allow feelings like ostentation and pride to grow. These are testing items in the human condition. Yet, the sources of these feelings are in fact open to both goodness and evil. What we should do is to be cautious against inclinations towards the evil, to try to subdue what transpires as evil, and to work hard to channel all our potential to the good. Those who can reduce themselves to zero with the utmost of their willpower and purify their souls can master their existence in this life.