Whoops, Where'd Ego?
“What purpose does ego serve? How did it come about? Can it be transcended safely? It seems clear that ‘slipping the surly bonds of ego’ is a good thing in the creation of art. Is it so in all areas of life?”
To answer the last question first, I would respond with an urgent No! Please don’t! For the majority of people, the problem isn’t actually an excess but a deficit in ego. The ego is definitely here for a reason, even if it is ultimately a partial and contingent thing that is always in need of reform, or at least countervailing influences.
This latter point is something that Ken Wilber stresses (or at least used to -- his thinking constantly evolves, and I am not familiar with his current work). But he used to emphasize that a healthy ego was a prerequisite for any kind of spiritual practice, for if you ignore it, it will eventually come back to bite you, as we see in the accounts of so many “spiritual masters” or just rank-and-foul preachers who misbehave in all sorts of naughty ways. Wilber’s main point was that a robust and healthy ego is needed, because it is the “launching pad” for spiritual growth; which is to say, you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.
There are many different angles from which we can examine this problem of the ego. For example, just last week I discussed the traditional idea that the first half of life should be spent focussing on worldly attainment (the ego, so to speak), while the second half of life marks an inward turn toward spiritual growth (the Self).
As a psychologist, one is generally dealing with problems of the ego, although there are clearly cases when the impasse is more existential (universal to egoic existence per se) or spiritual (i.e., time to move beyond the ego) or biological (a chemical imbalance that causes dysregulation of the ego and its functions). But again, the problem is not generally a need to “transcend” the ego. Rather, it is a deficit in egoic functioning: a dysregulation in identity, in mood, in impulses, in relationships, etc. One of the evolutionary purposes of the ego is in fact to “regulate” and organize psychic life, so almost every form of mental illness involves some kind of dysregulation of the ego. Strong egos needs to be built brick by brick, not discarded prick by prick.
Which leads back to the question: what is the purpose of a healthy ego? I don’t mean to ramble, but that’s a tricky question, because it depends on the context. First of all, the ego is literally “two-faced,” in that it is both an individual and a social being. In the former sense it is a solitary entity enclosed upon itself, while in the latter sense it is defined by its social relations. In more traditional societies, there were and are all kinds of cultural mechanisms that prevented the ego from becoming inflated and detaching itself from the group. However, this also enforced a kind of conformity that prevented the fulfillment of one’s unique inner potential. In the modern world we have the opposite problem: few checks on the most pathological dreams of the ego, which soon leads to the glorification of frankly antisocial (“countercultural”) attitudes and behavior.
When I say “traditional society,” we don’t actually have to go back that far even in America. For example, how different would economic relations be if you and the owner of your company both worshipped at the same church or synagogue each week, both hearing the same messages about generosity, or charity, or brotherly love? Religion used to be a completely communal activity, which by definition countered the self-centered aims of the ego. As such, much modern spirituality, because it tends to be individualistic, can easily accommodate the needs of the ego, and therefore become a means of self-deception and ego-inflation.
This change has become quite dramatic in just my lifetime. For example, when I was a kid, when someone hit a home run, they would humbly circle the bases with their head down. The batter would never make a show of it by lingering at the plate, admiring the trajectory of the ball, or dawdling around the bases, much less jumping up and down and pointing at himself. If you did this -- except in extreme cases, such as hitting a walk off home run in the World Series -- you could be sure that in your next at bat, the opposing pitcher would knock you down, both literally and figuratively. This is a fine example of the “community” tempering the obnoxious narcissism of the ego.
Look at what happens today when someone scores a touchdown. The purpose of scoring used to be winning for the team. Now it is to draw attention to oneself, like a delighted infant. The last player I remember not doing this was Marcus Allen. He said that he was brought up to act as if he had seen the end zone before.
The identical thing has happened in the entertainment world. At some point in past 30 or 35 years, there was a definite shift in the attitude of most performers. Instead of being on stage in a respectful and subservient manner to please the audience, the audience was there to literally worship and glorify the artist.
Look at the Beatles. They ended each performance by literally bowing to the audience. One of the reasons they stopped performing in August of 1966 was that they could not deal with the bizarre idealization of the audience. For them, they were still innocent enough -- still the product of an earlier time -- to simply want to play their music to appreciative ears. All the other nonsense of “Beatlemania” was not just superfluous, but annoying and even disorienting, as it would be to any remotely emotionally healthy or even just minimally insightful person who realizes he is not worthy of such adulation, much less worship. It should be disturbing to the recipient, to say the least. (In Bob Dylan’s enjoyable autobiography, he devotes a chapter to the absolute nightmare of the idealization he received in the latter half of the 1960’s.)
But today, as I said, the situation is entirely reversed, and entertainment has literally become a form of substitute religion, in which sick celebrities comfortably take on the role of idealized demigod instead of shrugging it off with embarrassment. People now want to become ”artists” not for the joy and privilege of creativity in the service of transcendent beauty -- which is its own reward -- but simply for fame, which is nothing more than a collective pathology that glorifies narcissism (and is the death of art, needless to say).
Remember, the narcissist cannot be a narcissist without a community to mirror his grandiosity. In a culture that was not already deeply sick, we wouldn’t know the names “Paris Hilton” or “Britney Spears” or even “Katie Couric” (to pick a supposedly “respectable” name out of thin air; it could be most anyone with great celebrity but no talent). If I could ask them one question, I suppose it would be, “why are you not constantly embarrassed?” Either that, or, if they were slightly more self-aware, “how do you conceal your contempt for the idiots responsible for making a talentless person such as yourself so wealthy and powerful?” I mean, what kind of ignoramus watches CBS News to inform themselves about the world? Don’t people at CBS or Time magazine know that their success depends upon legions of dolts? I’m sure some of the more cynical executives must, but cynicism is just another variation on narcissism.
It seems that talk of the “ego” mostly comes to us through Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Yoga, since we in the West have discarded our own perfectly acceptable ways to conceptualize the spiritual pathology of the ego, which centers around pride. In Christianity the ego is not so much transcended as vigilantly monitored and reformed. The classical virtues -- temperance, prudence, courage and justice -- had to be developed in order to counter the “natural” trends of the fallen ego, i.e., pride, envy, sloth, greed, etc. Thus, traditional culture provided a built-in transcendent purpose to existence. No wise person mistook the ego for a finished product, much less something to be celebrated or worshiped.
Here again, the loss of our own wisdom tradition has led to deep pathologies that are enshrined in massive political movements. In the past, Dennis Prager has mentioned that one of the most beneficial lessons of his religious upbringing was in teaching him that his greatest struggles in life would always be with himself. All forms of leftist victimology turn this perennial, self-evident wisdom on its head, and teach that your greatest struggles are outside of yourself, with society.
I should add that this latter attitude is literally addictive, in that it easily becomes a primary ego defense mechanism that prevents growth, insight, and self-examination. Why examine the self when you know in advance that it’s someone else’s fault? Why engage in the hard work of becoming a better and more moral person when all you have to do is join a political movement and displace your personal responsibility to the collective? You may be a selfish creep, but at least you're against global warming!
Last night I caught a few moments -- it was all I could tolerate -- of the famous leftist Tom Hayden and some other aging hippie on C-SPAN, hawking (or doving, I suppose) a moronic book on pacifism. The reason why he has learned nothing in forty years is that his ideology guarantees that he will learn nothing. He believes the same foolish things at 66 that he did at 22 or 23, when he wrote that unreadable monument to “new left” pomposity, the Port Huron Statement.
That crockument begins, “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit...” It should more accurately read “we the grandiose, the entitled, the egomaniacal, lacking even a modicum of gratitude or historical perspective, the recipients of unprecedented wealth, prosperity and opportunity, looking for a way to screw up the world we inherit, will, in our adolescent hubris, undermine the very conditions that made the priceless largesse of Western civilization possible....”
To be continued.