I sometimes disappoint myself. I guess we all do sometimes, but I don’t know what it’s like to be inside your secret thoughts. I can’t see the dark lust you might have hidden in your heart.
But I know the dark longings that come from my ego — and I often have to remind myself who I am. And what my values are.
I crave attention. I lust for success. I want money and adulation from others. Despite the insecure parts of me which question my value, my ego secretly whispers that I deserve all these things. Deep down, I believe I’m great.
In such moments of weakness, I have to remind myself what matters.
Let me tell you about an artist who I admire greatly. There’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard of Steve Taylor. He was a brilliant rock musician in the 1980s and early ’90s whose music was aimed at the Christian market. He rocked hard. His lyrics were razor-sharp and witty. He mocked sacred cows inside the church and in modern culture, too.
Only a small group of weirdos in the church understood what he was doing. Most people were scandalized by him or simply didn’t understand what it was all about. I loved his work.
But when Taylor released his 1993 album called “Squint,” I had trouble understanding the intent of the very last song. It was unlike anything he had ever done. There were bits and pieces that I found funny. I felt as though he was saying something profound, but I didn’t get it.
The avant-garde animation that came out as a video for the song didn’t really help me understand. At least, not for a long time.
In fact, it wasn’t until I started seeing myself as an artist — instead of as a journalist or a businessman — that I finally understood.
He was saying something profound, but this time, he wasn’t satirizing the world. He wasn’t making fun of others. He was aiming his witty rhetorical barbs at himself. It was a rebuke to his ego. And I couldn’t understand what it really meant until I started experiencing similar ego trips.
I’ll embed the song below, but I’ll warn you that you probably won’t like it. It’s not something easy to understand. It’s not accessible to just anybody. Even for his fans, it was a head-scratcher, both the music and the meaning.
The song references the story of the ancient Israelites making a golden calf to worship instead of God. It uses some zingers which were relevant at the time — attacking a popular televangelist named Robert Tilton, for instance — but which wouldn’t make sense to most people today. The song sets itself up as a standard warning about not being seduced by the golden calf, which he called the Cash Cow.
But at the end of the Second Act, his words suddenly make it clear what he means:
Woe, woe, woe to you who blow off this warning
Perhaps you’ve already been licked
I, too, was hypnotized
By those big cow eyes
The last time I uttered
Those three little words
“I deserve better!”
There are times when I find myself bitterly disappointed that I haven’t had more success with my work. I try to act as though it doesn’t bother me. I try to make that true. But my ego tells me I’m great. My ego tells me others should recognize that I’m great — and that I should be more successful.
In those awful moments when the darkness inside my heart — the secret parts of my inflated ego — tell me these things, I can find myself uttering those three little words that Taylor warned me about.
“I deserve better.”
It’s very easy for me to believe I’ve done things that are worth more people reading or watching or listening to, even if I haven’t earned their notice. Even if I’ve been afraid to take the chances to show them what I can really do.
It’s easy to be bitter and to be envious of those who have had more success, especially those who pander to the crowds with terrible work that just tells people what they want to hear.
I had another of those moments tonight.
I didn’t feel appreciated. I didn’t feel as though I got the attention I deserved. I didn’t feel loved. I didn’t feel as though I was being praised in the ways that I should.
And it pierced my heart to realize I was doing it again. I was falling for the desire for something lower and more base and more dangerous than what I should be wanting. I wanted the love and adulation and praise and glory — and I wanted it so much in that moment that I wanted to go chase the Cash Cow.
I struggle with remaining true to myself but not falling into the dark pit where ego would pull me. I am naturally very ambitious. I am naturally very egotistical. I am naturally eager to believe that I deserve everything this world has to offer.
But I know that getting those things in the wrong ways would destroy me. Maybe I’m too weak to have the things I secretly crave anyway. Maybe I’m not strong enough to have the things which my flesh craves without allowing those things to own me.
I have to constantly remind myself who I really am. What I really believe in. What my values are. Which things matter to me in the end.
I don’t want to be seduced by the Cash Cow. I want to be true to my values.
But in order to do that, I have to live with humility. I have to make art with both confidence and humility. I have to accept whatever the world gives me, but I have to resist that dark part of my ego which points the way toward the evil Cash Cow and whispers to me, “I deserve better.”