What is it about the ego?
by Robert A. Russell

OPPOSITES by Charles ChamWhat is it about the ego? People, especially Americans and psychologists (and presumably most of all American psychologists), seem to think it’s a wonderful thing.  If you have trouble getting what you want, they say, it’s because you have a weak ego. If you can’t handle relationships, you obviously need to bolster your ego (also known as ‘being assertive’). If other people are rude, inconsiderate, overweening and generally unpleasant to you – well, seek the fault in your own weedy ego.

So what is this ego thing? Is it a sense of confidence and purpose, and knowing what you want? Or is it vanity, selfishness, ruthlessness? Common sense tells us that if it is a good and positive aspect of our natures, then it must be the first. So why is it that it so often seems more like the second?

Buddhists make a point of minimizing the demands of the ego. Where there is no ego, there is no desire, no ambition – except, one assumes, the ambition to diminish the ego, a goal which is likely to prove elusive if approached from a western perspective. Which is just the point. It is impossible to apply a low-ego approach in a high-ego environment. At best you are ignored by those programmed to acknowledge only dynamic, high-profile personalities; at worst you get trampled to death by the go-getters and achievers.

‘Aggressive’ has positive connotations in the world of business. Since modern business methods are closely allied to those of modern warfare, this is hardly surprising.

But the ideal of the ruthless, goal-oriented achiever seems to have become a role model in all walks of life. Indeed, the value of achieving personal goals, thanks to the pervasive influence of certain styles of person-centred psychology, often outweighs the intrinsic value of the goals themselves. In other words, to paraphrase Ella Fitzgerald, it’s not what you do it’s the reason you do it. A little thought – for those of us who can spare a few seconds from our busy schedule of self-realization – will show that as a guiding principle this is a recipe for disaster. Vandals smash up public property because it gives them a kick. That is, presumably, their reason – what we might call the ‘right’ reason. They also do it for ‘left’ reasons – because they were brought up in a degrading environment by hopeless parents and feel they owe the world nothing but contempt.

Where does this leave the sacred notion of ‘ego’? Destructive and criminal acts may, in a short-term, perverse way, bolster an individual’s self-esteem (and some people manage to get away with it all their lives), but surely not even the looniest psychotherapist would recommend this particular route to salvation. Yet we systematically admire, and are constantly encouraged to admire, very similar behaviour directed towards outwardly less questionable goals. Those who crawl or hack their way to the top (wherever that is) are not always conspicuous for their tolerance, modesty, considerateness, or other ‘nice’ attributes that, in a rational (not to say ethical) view of human personality, should belong to the healthy ego. Certain types of negative big egos have become cliches, of course: the misunderstood little boy who is bullied at school and later in life develops a taste for genocide; or the pampered little Johnny who grows up into a self-centred Don Juan for whom other people, especially women, exist only to satisfy his own vanity.

Which brings us to those double-edged weapons at the core of the ego’s armoury: charm and charisma. When charmers get away with the most preposterous behaviour (as they invariably do), their charm not only survives untarnished but often acquires a new, alluring sheen. We admire their nerve, their swagger, their unshakable belief in themselves. And we envy. Yes, there’s the rub. The devil has all the best tunes. It is galling to live one’s life by a particular set of rules (thou shalt work uncomplainingly till thou droppest no matter how tedious thy toil, thou shalt be civil to thy neighbour however deeply thou despisest him, thou shalt never so much as look at another woman even if thine own wife appall thee) when certain people appear to have much more fun in life by ignoring every one of them. Are they the wrong rules, then? Have we been duped? ‘Yes’, whispers Satan, ‘you have.’ ‘So why’, we reply lamely, ‘do I feel virtuous when I play by the rules, and sinful if I even think of breaking them.’ At which the arch-charmer bursts into peals of helpless laughter, and we are left perplexed, trapped for ever in the cosy multitude of the meek.

Illustration by Charles Cham