[5 minute read]
Moving on from the heavy theory from yesterday’s post the Ego on Trial, we’ll now take a leisurely tour through what a misguided Ego might look like. Let me start with an assertion:
That which you worship, you will feel inadequate in.
Or if this seems too bizarre, we can flip it around –
that which you feel inadequate in, you will fundamentally pursue.
Even if you call yourself an atheist, there is something you “worship” — something you idolise in others and which you’re occasionally proud of in yourself, be it beauty, intelligence, power, or high scores in Fortnite. This idolisation means it’s something upon which you place deep value. And if you value something so deeply, then you will pursue it for yourself, and I mean really, deeply pursue even in small aspects of your life.
Have you seen this Idol?
We need some examples.
If I worship power and control, I will always end up feeling weak and afraid, and will feel I need to assert ever more power and control over things to placate the fear. Unchecked, this comes out as being a busybody in other’s concerns, being a “control freak”, even tyranny. (I’m hard-pressed to think of ANY politician not suffering this crisis of self-assurance). But one’s arms of power/control might also spread over physical items, seen in hoarding behaviour, or obsessive-compulsive cleaning.
If instead of power I’m focusing all my attention and effort on physical beauty, my sexual allure, I will in fact be forever feeling ugly. This may come out as excessive makeup routines, an endless string of cosmetic surgeries, or the highly lethal condition Anorexia. Of course, it affects men and women both (but, curiously, not small children…)
If I idolise intellect and being seen as smart, I will always end up feeling stupid, fraudulent, on the verge of being found out.
If I worship piety and religious devotion, I will always feel a sense of being impure, weak in resisting temptation, unworthy.
And if I chase a lifestyle which features money (and flashy displays of having money) I will, quite cruelly, never really feel wealthy. I will, according to my perspective, never have enough.
They’re all examples of a mis-directed Ego at work. There might be additional deeper things in play, but in all of these examples of idolisation there is always the factor of us wanting to be liked and respected by others, and of wanting to feel within ourselves that we’re worthy when we compare ourselves to others. This is the job of our Ego — our in-built social monitor. It pushes us to do things that might make us look good (strong, beautiful, friendly, whatever) to others, and then intensively looks around for feedback that we’re getting the approval of others.
But everyone else is doing it!
Let’s explore the last example a little more, since it’s at play in cultures everywhere. To others, I might appear filthy rich. Or abysmally poor. It’s irrelevant. The point is that to me, I will feel constantly hungry for money. The hunger might be sated for a few moments — after my stockmarket shares jump up in value, or after I drive around in circles downtown in an italian sports car. But the satiation is inevitably short-lived and I will soon hunger for yet more. Like Disney’s miserly Scrooge McDuck (Balthazar Picsou, Onkel Dagobar, Gober Bebek, Sknerus McKwacz, Tío Gilito), always greedy for more, never willing to give out.
And there’s a dark side of culture at play in many of these idols. This idolatry might not be connected to your core values, but social norms dictate that you should worship their idols anyway. In a capitalist society you’d be crazy not to want to pursue amassing a horde of money. That is to say, if you’re the sort of “deviant” who has little interest this life pursuit, other people will think you’re a freak, abnormal, maybe even a dangerous radical. The result? Ostracism, social rejection.
This social rejection is precisely what the Ego wants to avoid. So it might seem like my Ego is damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
Aaaarhh can’t I just cut this Ego out of me?!
Are you with me, or against me?
Before things get too desperate in this zany world of false-idols, let’s take one step back. In my previous post I critiqued Eckhart Tolle’s critique of the Ego. Perhaps he’d like his Ego cut out of him. But Tolle is on to something in suggesting we put our Ego on trial. We need to see if our Ego is working for us, or against us. If it’s aligned with our core values, or merely pandering to social expectations and peer-pressure.
In fact, some of these pursuits don’t seem all that bad. What about worshipping friendliness? Generosity? Self-composure? For sure they make us look good in society, and as such feed into the Ego. And I’m not suggesting we completely stomp out all our friendliness and generosity. But like everything, there’s a chance we go too far with even these more likeable pursuits. Being overly friendly can make people to avoid you, being too generous leaves you open to others taking advantage of you.
As with most things Ego, it’s more than likely that these idolisations are buried in our subconscious. We’re not even aware they’re there, propelling us through life to do some really weird, irrational things. But they’re always there, influencing even the smallest of our day-to-day operations.
As John Donne famously said, “no man is an island”, and it would be foolish to completely mute the Ego and shun all society. [Though I do respect those few who have tried exit society in favour of more simple, sustainable livelihoods.] A bit of Ego is appropriate.
The Ego keeps us socially acceptable.
Sure, if you ease back on how much you worship some of these idols, then some of your social connections may diminish. But as John Lennon said, “Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.”
Credit should go to Mark Manson’s blog for inspiring some of these ideas