Tag Archives: ego

In Praise of Ego

The ego can be a good thing—an artful, beautiful self embodying soul in the world.
Thomas Moore

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.

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The Gift of Listening

rca

In my recent post “Shoddy Virtues,” I quoted John Steinbeck to the effect that the act of giving can often be an ego-inflating sham, while gracious receiving requires wisdom and humility. In that post I did celebrate the possibility of giving with love and lamented selfish receiving, but Steinbeck’s observation that those qualities are often reversed seems spot on.

There is one act of receiving, however, that strikes me as almost always so wise and humble that it itself becomes a gift. I am of course referring to the receptive gift of listening.
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The Dappled Road Toward Wisdom

The inspiring thoughts of theoretical philosophy strike me as wonderfully bright, hopeful, and inspiring, but the journey toward maturity and wisdom also has a darker side. In order to understand this reality, I think we need to look squarely at the shadowy depths from which Wisdom emerges. “Bonno wa satori” says a Japanese Zen aphorism: enlightenment abides in our imperfections. Talk of the magnificence of Wisdom seems disingenuous when we look through the window of the lecture hall at the world outside, filled with real—and suffering–humanity. “Today, like every day,” says Rumi, “we wake up empty and frightened.”

From one perspective, I feel as though I have been living life in a series of interior rooms. I (my ego) began as a pinched little room. Now my interior room feels more ample, and its walls are often translucent and permeable, allowing the breath of life, sometimes at least, to have its say through me. After innumerable transitions–some harsh, some gentle—my inner and outer worlds are coming into alignment, opening onto vistas of a sacred world. How I got from there to here is the story I want to share.

Looking back over seven decades of life, I say gratefully that it has been quite a ride. I have a beautiful family and dear friends, and I am in the third decade of a loving marriage that daily exceeds my expectations. Over the years, however, I have made countless mistakes, but I have learned many helpful things from them. The famous Buddhist image resonates. Like all of us, I am a lotus flower growing ever so slowly in the mud.

The Executive Ego: a Room Without a View
I sometimes ask my students to imagine that their interior reality is like a secret room, and to envision what it looks like. Does it have bare concrete walls with no windows, and a toilet over in the corner? If there is a window, does it have bars? Are those bars meant to keep people out, or to lock oneself in—or both? On the other hand, might one’s interior room be like Andrew Wyeth’s Sea Breeze, light and airy, with the curtains billowing with fresh ocean air? Many people live in a version of the former, I am afraid, and they spend their lives trying to make that little room more comfortable, with expensive furniture and the latest gadgets. They think a bigger house gives them more interior space, but just the reverse is true. Often, the more money, position, or power one has, the smaller and more protective is the room of the soul. Many people know this at some level, but relatively few believe it enough to alter their lives. I don’t think it is our birthright, though, to spend our lives in a small protected corner of our selves. The creation of the solid walls of ego usually happens when we are very young, and then this room solidifies into an internal control center, whose beliefs, knowledge, values, thoughts and feelings, do their level best to run the show. When it is successful, as it often is, the result is a parody of what Georgia O’Keeffe calls “the livingness of life.”

During my first few decades of life I created a small, safe room, a tiny protected ego that was furnished with the religious certainties of the Catholic Church, American middle class morality, and ultimately a Ph.D. To use Plato’s analogy, I wore the chains of 1950’s conventionality, whose links were forged in the fear of abandonment, shame, and disapproval. These chains were of my own making in response to cultural and familial conditioning, and they most likely made perfect sense at the time. They had no locks, so I had to hold onto them with all the force of my young psyche in order to maintain their protective shield.

When the time was right, I married, found a secure teaching job at a fine college in Vermont, fathered two boys, and bought a house. Complacent and secure in the American Dream, I was convinced I was walking a wide paved road to promotion, tenure, fame and fortune. I was following the blueprint I had been given for a happy and successful life.

And then the bottom fell out.

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