The ego can be a good thing—an artful, beautiful self embodying soul in the world.
I have heard it said that the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead would awaken every morning, and exuberantly exclaim, “Thank God I am Margaret Mead!” That is certainly an eye-opener, and at first blush sounds unpleasantly self-centered. It is also an incredibly difficult thing to say. Try it yourself: “Thank God I am …” I’ll bet your name stuck in your throat. I know mine did. Although it appears as though Ms. Mead is egotistically crowing at the dawn, I think that there is a wonderful sense in which her affirmation can be seen as a grateful recognition that she has been given existence as a unique individual who has the potential to be a blessing to herself and to the world.
In the Prologue to Demian, Herman Hesse writes a moving tribute to the precious reality of each and every individual:
“Each human being represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature … the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every [person’s] story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every [person] as long as he [or she] lives and fulfills the will of nature is wondrous and worthy of every consideration.”
I find two ideas in this quote inspiring. The first is that each of us is an experiment on the part of nature in the creation of the human. Each of us is a variation on the theme of humanity, a variation that has never existed before and will never show up again. It is as though nature says, “Ok, John or Sally or Peter, here is your particular slice of humanity. Now let’s see what you can do with it.” We do not make our choices and create a self with impunity, however. The world will either be better off or worse off, if only by a trifle, simply because you and I have passed through it. Will we leave a few small ripples of kindness behind us, or more distrust and fear? This is a question, I think, that is worth asking every day, as a step toward being the man I want to be.
The second idea that inspires me is the notion that my perception of the world here and now is actually creating a world that exists only in this moment, and only through me. This is reminiscent of the opening lines of the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Have you ever looked at a sunset, say, and realized that this particular sunset is for you alone and no one else? No one is seeing it from your place in the world, from your angle, with your thoughts and feelings. Think of it: everything you see right here and right now–and in every moment of your life– is the creation of your perceptions. An irreducible world comes into being with your birth, flowers with your every step, and vanishes at your death. We truly are co-creators with the Divine, and I imagine with Alice Walker that our Divine Collaborator must get exasperated with us when we don’t treasure our creative power. We have the opportunity to revel in the beauty that it is our privilege and perhaps responsibility to create and enjoy. In the Color Purple, Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” And when we piss God off this way, She just plunks another field of purple flowers in our path, just to see if this time we will co-create it with Her, or remain wrapped in our complacent slumber.
The wonderful dancer and choreographer Martha Graham puts this clearly:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
It strikes me as miraculous that the same song, say, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, can be played following the same fundamental harmonic and melodic structure, and yet be a rendition immediately recognizable as unique to Oscar Peterson, or Bill Evans, or Erroll Garner, or George Shearing, or Marian McPartland. Each of these master pianists encounters the song in the depths of their soul, and allows the life force to flow through their particular feelings and sensibilities, as well as through the storehouse of theory, voicing, and dynamics that they have nurtured throughout their lifetimes. The beliefs, thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and feelings arising from one’s life experience coalesce into the person one is. The ego then becomes a unique conduit for the perception and the creation of beauty.
But often, the fruitful depths of our hearts are blocked when ego dons a rigid and controlling mask. When our patterns of consciousness become encapsulated by ego, they can be manhandled into the service of our competitive and fearful need for material success and acceptance. The authentic self is distrusted and relegated to the background of consciousness. Our ego can then take over the executive function of our lives, and do its best to run the show in an attempt to produce a life that conforms to cultural norms or even to the shibboleths of the “spiritual” seeker.
Much has been written of the ego’s usurpation of our vital and creative energy, even to the point of advising us “to kill the ego!” Gabriel Marcel, however, offers an arresting insight. He speaks of the ego as being “rooted in anguish rather than in love. Burdened with myself, plunged in this disturbing world, sometimes threatening me, sometimes my accomplice, I keep an eager lookout for everything emanating from it which might either soothe or ulcerate the wound I bear within me, which is my ego.” I find it helpful to think of my ego as a wound in my heart, a wound that does not need to be warred against, but reassured and comforted. Sometimes, I think, it serves me well–when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. We do, after all, spend a significant amount of time navigating the demands of ordinary human life. But at those numinous times when life calls for our co-creation, whether with a field of purple flowers, or Somewhere Over The Rainbow, or an intimate conversation with one’s significant other, or the creation of the magnificent window at Chartres Cathedral at the top of this page, then it is ego’s turn, not to die, but to become permeable and translucent, allowing the power of creative love to flow through the unique prism of who we are in that very moment. In the artful living of life, ego, spirit, and soul together flower into an aperture through which Beauty shines upon the world.
Martin Buber tells the story of Rabbi Zusya “when he said, a short while before his death: ‘In the world to come I shall not be asked “Why were you not Moses?” I shall be asked: “Why were you not Zusya?”
That, I think, says it all.