How To Escape the Ego’s Badlands: Stop Being a Sour Grape

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay|
We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good

— ”Badlands,” Bruce Springsteen

“Badlands” has long been one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs. He usually opens all of his live shows with it because the song’s theme – like most of his songs – is about the absolute futility most of us feel at some point – or perhaps at many points – in life. I often feel discouraged about my life – about the big, grand dreams I once had of fame and fortune and ill-repute.

I wanted to be a big player on the stage for LGBTQI rights in this country. I wanted to use my writing and speaking talents to move our nation and religious institutions in the direction of equality and full acceptance of the LGBTQI community. I wanted to be a national, revered – and reviled – figure, ready to jump into any controversy with both feet.

What happened?

Well, at some point, it all seemed a bit futile. Not the push for rights and inclusion – many of those battles have been won and many continue – but the desire to be honored and admired on the big stage. The attraction for this faded when I went on my book tour back in 2009 and realized very quickly that traveling the country was too much for this homebody. I enjoyed being places and doing workshops and speeches and book signings. But getting there? I’d rather not.

I think that often happens to our dreams. They’re grand and wonderful and amazing, but getting there is a battle. Often, a long, exhausting battle.

In the end, I felt a lot like the person Bruce sings about. I was tired of the same old played out scenes and all those in-between times when it felt like I was spinning my wheels. I may have said I wanted fame and recognition, but what my soul really yearned for was the heart and the soul of life – that true part within each of us that makes this bodily life worth living.

I wasn’t there, though. I wasn’t in that place where I was living deeply from my heart and my soul. Instead, I was living in the badlands of the ego where we have to wake up every day and experience that heartbreak of feeling as if there’s more to life than this treadmill of work and home and chores and other obligations, but we can’t seem to put our finger on what’s missing. We keep pushing and pushing, reading books, attending lectures, listening to spiritual gurus, waiting for that moment of inspiration or recognition that just doesn’t ever seem to arrive.

We want to push until these badlands start treating us well … but that will never happen. The badlands can’t treat us well, because the badlands are the ego’s realm and it’s always telling us that we must strive for more and more and more to make us happy, all the while chanting its motto of, “Seek but do not find.”

These badlands are like the vineyard full of wild grapes that the prophet Isaiah describes in Isaiah 5:1-7. Traditionally, this passage is read as an admonishment to the Hebrew people in particular. Here they are, God’s chosen people, and they can’t seem to live into that chosen-ness. Instead, they chase after other gods or break God’s commandments to love one another, welcome the stranger or help the poor and needy. God planted the people of Israel and expected them to bear good fruit, but instead, Isaiah laments that where God expected justice there was bloodshed and where righteousness was supposed to reign, there were only tears.

Isaiah’s image is one of a vineyard, planted by a loving creator who is disappointed to see that the vineyard it loved and tended with so much care has borne wild fruit, sour grapes that ruin the vineyard. This image is similar to how A Course in Miracles describes that moment when the illusion of separation between God and us came into being. According to A Course, the separation occurred when “the son of God forgot to laugh.”

Our separation from God came when we stopped taking delight in our unity with God and with one another. Instead, we began to take ourselves – that small “s” self – very seriously indeed, building this bodily reality to serve the egoic self. Now, instead of coming together as one to make the sweet wine of the spirit, we are wild grapes, growing apart from one another and believing that we are not all part of that one vine.

In that moment of separation, Isaiah says that God has “lowered the hedge” around the vineyard and allowed it to run wild, to take its chosen path to become these bogus badlands we inhabit when we live into our small, ego self. The breaking down of that protective wall is seen, traditionally, to mean that God gave up his chosen people to their sin, and it can be read that way through a metaphysical lens, as long as we remember our only “sin” is believing the lie of separation.

That “lowering of the hedge,” merely means that God allows us to live in the illusion of the wild ego-driven, sour-grape-filled vineyard for as long as we like. This is the essence of free will. We can remain in these badlands our whole physical lives if we like, or, we can remember to laugh, to take joy in the world that lies beyond the ego and come back again to the unity that is our higher self. We are still God’s chosen people. We just have to keep choosing to live in that vineyard where we know we are all one.

‘Tell them they’re right’

When I was working on being a big player in the LGBTQI rights movement, I spent a lot of time arguing with people who were wrong, either on the internet or in person. It was easy to spot these wrong-headed people because they insisted that God hated LGBTQI people and would send us all to hell unless we repented of our sexual orientation or gender identity and got our lives, literally, straightened out.

Back in those days, wrapped up in my egoic need to be right and prove all the haters wrong, wrong, wrong, I would have openly scoffed at the advice A Course gives us in Chapter 9. It’s still hard for me wrap my mind around – since my ego still screeches about how crazy it sounds.

“When you correct a Holy Sibling,” A Course says, “you are telling them that they are wrong. He may be making no sense at the time, and it is certain that, if he is speaking from the ego, he will be making no sense. But your task is still to tell them they are right.”

That’s crazy. A Course says that even if somebody is wrong, wrong, wrong, you must tell them that they are right. Well, thankfully, it goes on to say, “You do not tell them this verbally,” which is great because that feels a bit impossible. But A Course reminds that “they need correction at another level, since their error is at another level. They are still right because they are a Child of God. Their ego is always wrong, no matter what it says or does.”

Whew, this is a tough one, but it’s one of the main keys to escaping these bogus badlands. As long as we keep judging people as wrong, wrong, wrong, then we’ll remain caught up in this world’s collective ego of blaming and shaming. What A Course is inviting us to do is to look beyond the ego of the person in front of us, no matter how difficult it may be, and, instead of judging them, arguing with them, or pointing out just how wrong-headed they may be, we simply send them God’s messages of love. We can do this because we realize that OUR ego is always wrong, too. We must hold our own opinions lightly and be willing to release them so we can become that messenger of love.

The challenging people you see – those terrible sour grapes that we share this earth with – your job is to love them, no matter what they say, no matter what they do, no matter who they vote for, no matter how wrong-headed you think they are. Your job is to send messages of love, because all that fear they broadcast with their opinions and actions is simply a call for love. It’s your duty to answer that call.

Will you do it every time? No! Simply because in that moment, you may be the one caught in your own fearful ego and calling out for a messenger of love to visit you. We end up in arguments and fights when two people – or groups or nations of people – are calling out for love and no one is willing to send the messenger of love to comfort them. This is the culture of our bogus badlands, where we’re all calling out for love and either not receiving it, or we’re rejecting the messengers that are sent to us.

One of the reasons we’re in this egoic reality – this wild vineyard – is so we might channel love and justice into this world. Why should we if it’s just an illusion? Because the ego’s grasp on us, both individually and collectively, is very strong and we will live our physical lives in these badlands, so we’d better be about creating the best possible reality for us all right now.

We must work for justice and peace in this physical realm, but we don’t have to do it by seeing our Holy Siblings, who have different ideas and opinions, as enemies. Instead, we must stop seeing them – and ourselves – as wild sour grapes and instead look deeper for the divinity that resides within us all. When we can stop seeing other people as evil, or angry, or wrong, then we can go about the business of loving them, even as we seek to keep their ideas and actions from becoming practice, policy, or law in this reality.

I am still a big advocate for LGBTQI equality, and I always will be, but now I see my opponents differently. I don’t have to tell them that I believe they are wrong. Instead I try to cultivate a sense of compassion for them, knowing that they don’t have all the facts about my community, and they hold some erroneous beliefs about it. I’m also hoping that those who oppose my ideas and actions will come to the same place of compassion for me, because when both sides work from a place of goodwill, if not agreement, then we’ll both be sending and receiving love.

As Springsteen assures us, when we believe in the Love that we’ve never left and have faith that it will save all of us, we will rise above these badlands. We do that when we ignore the badlands’ rules and seek to always treat one another well. This is the only thing we keep pushing until it’s understood.

Music for the Journey: ‘Badlands’ by Bruce Springsteen