How to have a healthy ego



This is the second part of a series of essays.  To see the first one, click here.

This is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one.

When I praise the ego, I am not at all saying that the ego should never be questioned, or challenged. All I'm saying is, instead trying to eradicate the ego, let's use this questioning and challenging to work toward a stronger, healthier ego - which implies, to some degree and in some aspects, a more realistic ego, a more accurate self-concept, a more truthful and precise image, an image with a greater degree of resolution, which, rather than drifting away into vague abstraction, more closely resembles the reality on the ground, the nuts and bolts of our neurological, biological, embodied, carnal situation.

....But only to a certain degree and in specific aspects.  The image will never be entirely one with reality.  The map cannot be identical with the territory, and to wish that it were is to wish for the eradication of the ego altogether.  We must maintain a certain level of fictive distance, however small. One aspect of the realism that is a noble pursuit is the capacity to realize that the absolute coincidence will forever elude us.  Ironically, the demand for the total self-realization that would utterly dissolve the self is nothing but hubris.

Instead, we should be trying to exercise our egos, so that we can keep our egos more flexible, more limber.  We should learn how to stretch and squeeze our egos to adapt to constantly changing experiences.  If we are striving for anything, instead of striving for oblivion, why not strive for abundance, for elegance, for efficiency, for parsimony, for simplicity, for grace?  Let's get fast egos.  Let's dance.

How can we do this?  How can we keep our egos healthy?  Well, first of all, check to see if your capacity to maintain your self-concept depends on anything, and what it depends on.  Did you build your self-concept around your car?  Around your house?  Around commodities like a certain style of clothes or some records?  Around a book?  Around your family?  Around ethnicity or race or nation or gender or some other form of identity?  Around God?  Around your job?  Around certain beliefs you might have, or principles, or likes or dislikes or desires or dreams or memories?

I am not moralizing here.  It's up to you.  Are you comfortable with these dependencies?  Do you like them?  Would you rather that your self-concept depended on something else?  Or would you prefer that it depended on nothing?  Is that even possible?  What would be a stable basis for your self-concept?  Is stability your main goal? 

Of course one of the problems with basing one's ego on anything other than one's ego itself - a car, for instance, or an ideology - is that the threat of the loss of that thing becomes a threat to one's entire self-concept.  Then the person is put into a difficult, painful, and self-destructive situation: on the one hand, the person will do anything and everything to protect that thing, because any perceived outward dangers or internal cracks or inconsistencies in the thing could mean a loss of self.  On the other hand, for that very reason, the person will be unwilling or unable to perceive the cracks or inconsistencies in that thing that may already exist.  So they become stuck in a terrible double-bind, in which they must constantly obsess over that which they, at the same time, cannot bring themselves to face.  It's a frantic, joyless existence.

Societal ills result in unhealthy ego-formation.  Capitalism malforms and stunts the development of a healthy ego.  I don't think that developing a healthy ego is something that you can do on your own. In fact, the very expectation that people "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" and "fix" themselves on a purely individualistic basis is, itself, a symptom of a society that is terminally sick.  Developing healthy egos has to be a collective project.  It will require the creation of a brand new society, which necessitates, first, the destruction of this one.

In addition to the problems of capitalism, there are even older, more deep-seated problems of patriarchy.  For too many people, having a strong ego is associated with masculinity and manliness.  Even some of the most trenchant thinkers on these topics - Stirner, Marx, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein - reveal themselves in certain passages to be infected with this kind of delusion.  (For instance, at one point, in a questionaire, Marx wrote that the "quality" he "liked best - in men" was "Strength," and "in women" was "Weakness".)

What would the ego be like if it weren't all tangled up in these ridiculous stereotypes about masculinity and gender?  That is something to meditate on.  (Remember, "ego" is simply Greek for "I", so an equivalent question would be: "What would I be like if I weren't all tangled up in these ridiculous stereotypes about masculinity and gender?")  The very concept of self-assertion has been coded in gendered terms for a very long time.  For many people who live in a patriarchal society - people who may identify as a woman, as a man, as non-binary, or what have you - some gendered ideal is the "thing" that their ego depends on.  For instance, being independent or tough may be unconsciously identified with being macho.  One sees this in a variety of social environments, from the executive boardroom of a corporation, to a rural tractor-pull, from Congress to a prison.

And in some ways, the same goes for every kind of identity - racial identity, religious identity, and so on and so forth.  To the extent that our ego depends on these kinds of identities, it fails to attain any kind of independent existence.  

Now, a liquefactionist might, at this point, pop up to say: once you strip away all these illusions, searching for an "independent" ego, don't you discover that this very notion of the independent ego is itself an illusion, one that is maintained by the ideology of individualism that emerges from capitalism?  And the answer is, in a certain sense - yes!  As I've already indicated, the ego is an illusion.  The question is: how can we maintain a healthy illusion, and not fall into an unhealthy illusion?  (As Nietzsche puts it, "I am dreaming!  I will... continue dreaming.")  And indeed, capitalism has been the root cause of many of the ways that egos become unhealthy.

This can lead us into another discussion, about science.  As I indicated at the beginning of this essay, it is wise for those who strive to maintain a healthy ego, in certain respects and to some degree, to try to make their egos more realistic - to maintain a more accurate self-concept.  Thus, it makes sense to strive for truth, and science is our most powerful path toward the truth.  So it would follow that science is a great help in maintaining a healthy ego.  And so it could be, and can be, and, I think, will be.  But science is also a group of institutions that are created by humans in society, and under the conditions of capitalism, things can get much more complex.  Are there "scientists" who have unhealthy egos?  Undoubtedly.  Might "scientists" be motivated - perhaps by capitalistic concerns - to elbow there way up to positions of power and influence, and from these positions, broadcast The Truth with an air of absolute certainty, demanding unquestioning adherence to their dictates, arguing on the mere basis of their own authority, with the arrogance that is characteristic of an ego maintaining unhealthy illusions (and probably leading us all to confusion and error in the process)?  Again, no doubt that such people exist.  But to my mind, this behavior is not science, no matter how many degrees such people may have, how many accolades they receive, or how many citations their papers get - or at any rate they are not practicing legitimate science, which should always be subject to questioning and testing.  Such people may become little more than priests of a new religion - and, as everybody knows, the most dangerous kind of pride is the righteous conviction of an unquestioning faith.

So how do we distinguish between healthy illusions and unhealthy illusions?  I have already brought up the issue of ego-dependency - the dependence of the ego upon something external to it.  Sometimes this takes the form of something like an addiction.  Of course drug addiction can be devastating for a person or a family or a society, but that's not primary what I'm thinking of, here.  To my mind, even more dangerous than addiction to drugs are other kinds of addictions.

Some people are addicted to applause.  Hitler would be a good example.  Of course, he was addicted to a lot else besides applause - methamphetamine, for one thing.  But it's clear that he saw himself primarily as an orator, and drew great meaning from his rallies - indeed, he romanticized himself, and eventually began to believe his own hype, that he was a "genius" and the "redeemer" of Germany, and so forth.  He could not bear to be anything less than his self-mythologization.

On the other hand, there are also some people who become addicted to disapproval.  John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, would be a good example.  He made himself an icon by shocking and disturbing the public, and the more the public came to adore him and revere him, the more he needed to disappoint them and rebuke them.  That's why, in recent years, he has pushed himself into a corner, coming out as a MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter and anything else he can think of that might make people hate him.  He, too, has become a victim of his own self-mythologization.  (Years ago, my friends and I wrote about "Dude Theory," and there was a section about what we called "monsters" - people that lose their humanity through cyclical patterns of behavior.  The addiction to approval and the addiction to disapproval are both examples of patterns that can turn people into monsters.)

People become hollowed out by such addictions.  They cease to have depth.  They become mere shells, husks of human beings.  In short, their egos have become damaged, and are unhealthy. 

A wonderful well to draw from on this topic is the centuries-long tradition of Aristotelian virtue ethics.  Aristotle wrote about what he called a "great-souled" (megalopsychos) person: one who claims much, but also deserves much, and above all, claims and deserves honor.  (The term "magnanimous" comes from the Latin translation of this term.)   Aristotelian virtue ethics is all about avoiding vicious cycles, and instead developing the skill of getting into virtuous cycles.

(By the way, I see Hegel as very much within the Aristotelian tradition, and the question that he wrestled with - the same question that several thinkers in his generation wrestled with - to be fundamentally at issue here.  What is the basis of the "I" (we might say, "ego") - is it, as Fichte asserted, self-positing?  Is it based on nature, as Schelling thought?  We may use a different vocabulary, based on our different historical experience, but in some way we are still struggling with the same question today.  Hegel thought he had glimpsed the answer in his notion of mutual Recognition - but that is another topic for another day.  That's enough for now.)

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