“There are no perfect men in this world, only perfect intentions.” -From Robin Hood –
I have a problem with egos. My ego, everybody’s egos. I studied with a Buddhist teacher in Atlanta for 5 years. I can’t tell you if everything they taught me would be helpful to you. Spirituality and religion is so incredibly personal, I continue to be baffled that anyone would ever try to convince another that their belief is the right belief… worse, the only true and abiding belief. But people do it, or try to, every day. I best not be critical of them right now, because I’m about to try to sell my own version of… well, of a concept that involves a spirituality. It’s not a religion, though many think it is. And I admit, when you’re with the monks for days on end, you begin to see that Buddhism is a religion… to them. To the rest of us Westerners, it’s a spiritual, philosophical way of seeing, and living in this world.
Wikipedia tells us – (we) “generally use ego simply to mean one’s sense of self-worth, whether exaggerated or not. When used in the “exaggerated” sense, ego is almost the same thing as conceit. Meeting a superstar athlete without a trace of this kind of ego would be a most refreshing experience. But having a reasonable sense of your own worth is no sin. Life’s little everyday victories are good—in fact, necessary—for a healthy ego.”
A Curious Elixir – Selflessness!
The only aspect of all that I want to share with you is this – the Buddhist idea of selflessness. They taught me from day one that, in this life, there is much suffering. Their spirituality goes to great pains to show us a pathway through this suffering into happiness, peace, contentment. One of the first elements on this path was selflessness. They teach, and I know to be true, that when we’re able to smother our own egos, to see through the ego, disengage it, if you will, and remove it from our perception of what we see, feel, of how we act and respond to others, then we have taken the first step to enlightenment!
Yup. The first step to enlightenment! Pretty cool, huh? Except for one thing… it’s damn hard to do! I know, I’ve had a problem with it for 28 years now, since I first became aware of it. The ego might be thought of as the devil, an evil thing within us. But the more I am digging into the ego and its effect on each of us, the more I’m convinced that the Buddhists have it right… that the ego can be a fairly large obstruction to how much we learn in this life, how much we grow and what we’re ultimately able to accomplish. I have no problem with a moderate ego… my god, we all need at least that, just to have a healthy sense of self. No, my problem is with the hungry ego, the one that demands to be fed all the time, the one that begins attaching words and ideas to our sense of self, words like “important,” “flawless,” “better than…”
Show, for Pete’s sake… don’t tell
I know, I know… the only writing class I ever took taught me only this – show, don’t tell. So time to stop telling and show… well, by telling something else. You see, I have friends and acquaintances who are struggling with their egos, and don’t even know it. Their egos are so in control of their every action and response that it gets difficult after awhile… awkward and even painful. These are brilliant people, who have thrown a huge blanket of ego over their abilities. It hurts me to see them. They’re mostly guys, by the way. Not surprising, as we guys are way more ego driven than many of the ladies. Our testosterone and our egos often work in tandem, especially with the help of any enhancing substance, to turn us into raving, embarrassing egomaniacs. I know, I’ve been one. We’re not a pretty sight, and we always do ourselves, and often others, more harm than good. Take an over-blown ego, add testosterone, then throw some misplaced pride into that mess and presto! You have your classic stupid male! George Carlin once said “Woman are crazy because men are stupid.” I think he’s right on both counts, but definitely the second one.
Anyway, show, don’t tell. Let’s start with my ego, which has, over the years, been able to re-invent itself in its insidious attempt to make me believe I’m a way better person than I actually am. It’s kind of like a virus… I begin to get the handle on that part of the ego I can control, and it morphs into a new form that I don’t recognize for awhile. I sometimes see my ego as a snake in the grass, or an evil alligator, lying in the weeds just under a shallow surface of a small pond, waiting for a momentary weakness in my ego vigilance, to surface and pounce. I can consciously see and feel how it surfaces and tries to make me feel important, appealing to my secret desire to be needed, respected and trusted by others. I fight daily with this need to be, to feel, “important.”
A Fear Of Flying
I have friends who have accidentally helped me to see the dangers of the large ego first hand. A good part of what their egos feed upon is their fear of failure. “If you don’t try, you can’t succeed” is fed upon by the large ego that insists that it’s safer, smarter not to try. The ego can be a procrastinator and a devious inventor, constantly coming up with excuses for making its owner feel like he’s right, regardless of the situation. Any person who is unwilling to examine his own belief system for validity on anything usually has an ego problem of one sort or another. I am constantly amazed at how common the fear of failure is, and how effortlessly the ego feeds on it.
There are a lot of people out there who started out to explore their passions and their abilities, only to be steered away by their egos. Their self-perception demanded that they be instantly successful and when the possibility arose that they might fail, they backed off their dream and took an easier, safer path… a path that saved their ego and guaranteed a type of perfection and secondary success they could live with. The ego waters down the risk/reward aspect of our lives so heavily that after awhile it doesn’t matter anymore. And the ego provides SO many seemingly logical reasons why it doesn’t matter.
I also know those who are not afraid to try anything, having a handful of excuses why they failed, if they failed. And an overblown ego will provide excuses/reasons why it wasn’t really a failure at all, but simply an honorable attempt at something that was doomed from the start by circumstances no mortal could possibly have anticipated. But a simple admission of a failed attempt? Never!
American Pie vs Humble Pie
This is but one of the detrimental aspects of an inflated ego. There are so many… once again, I know from experience. In America, hell maybe anywhere, professional success translates into over-confidence. Humility is not very popular in our American culture, yet I keep seeing accounts of great people being written about a exceptional, saying things like, “And they’re really humble! A truly remarkable person!” As if one couldn’t be great AND humble. As hard as it can be to keep one’s ego and self worth in check when we’re professionally successful, it is so healthy and helpful to us, and those around us if we remember who we were, and who our loved ones and friends need us to be. That, as it turns out, is way more important than the temporary euphoric feeling we might have, that feeling of being better than the average guy. In this case, let me assure you, we aren’t. We don’t have a clue about the potential heroism of the average man. Chances are, if we all laid our cards on the table, they’d put us to shame. Difference being, our egos grabbed our successes at some point, making sure that the rest of the world knew about our accomplishments, while in many cases, their egos didn’t.
The ego nearly always smothers humility, but that’s okay with many of us, because humility can be seen by us as a weakness, and we can’t have that, now can we? We’re Americans, after all, and that by necessity nearly demands that we be aggressive and confident. In that case, who do you call? Ghost Busters? No no, the EGO, of course! Our egos end up defining who we are and how we are… which turns out to be mere shells of who we might become if we could simply find our own egos inside us, figure out how it drives us and place it on the back burner… giving our better selves the chance to improve, see more clearly outside ourselves, and begin making a better contribution to our loved ones, our communities, and our work.
We shouldn’t think that we have to have a healthy ego in order to be confident, or brave, or appropriately aggressive… matter of fact, a healthy ego is no problem whatsoever for a person. A healthy ego usually arises from knowledge, which in turn, is a power. An understanding of what is true, what is real, is a real eye-opener – powerful within itself, instantly showing us who we really are in this world, And that, good reader, is the formula for the pixie dust that holds the ego in its spell, with no place to grow.
Almost Nothing Worth While Is Easy
None of this is easy, for any of us. Seeing the truth of a thing, the real truth, is sometimes very difficult. So often the truth, and our hesitant acknowledgment of it, usually exposes prejudices and mistaken beliefs that we never knew we had. Right there is a crucial junction, for do we revert back to our old belief system, which is usually well-worn and comfy, or do we suspend what we have believed and look into the truth of the matter further? At this point, up jumps that damned ego again, trying to convince us that “what we have believed is fine, it’s gotten us this far in life, hasn’t it? Why challenge things that don’t really matter in the end? Don’t we have better things to do?? Of course we have!”
Danger, danger, Will Robinson! This is, indeed, a crucial junction, for we are now challenged to take a few uncertain steps into some new possibilities, possibilities that might leave us without our egos in tact, without our safety net. Scary, yes? Sure, yet so worthwhile! Try imagining being a self confident, self-realized person with a real backbone, quietly confident, with a mostly obedient ego in tow. Pretty wild, but definitely possible. I bet you know people like that, who fit that description. And I bet you like them, or at the very least, respect them. And I’d lay down a modest sum that you might like to be more like that person, unless, of course, your ego jumps up, telling you you’re already better than that person, that they’re simply hiding the same weaknesses, prejudices and biases that you have. In that moment, if you choose to lean back on your old friend, your ego, you have just missed the road less traveled. And if you don’t know the difference between confidence and arrogance, well, the road less traveled was probably not for you anyway…
When we think that our personal perception of things is more accurate than existing facts, we’ve missed the turn. When we think that a politician knows more about a coronavirus than a scientist, we’ve missed the turn. When we know, in our hearts, that something is a lie, and we prefer to believe it and live by it rather than research it and challenge it… then we’ve missed the turn and certainly had no intention of considering taking it. When that happens, we’re being driven by a blind and ignorant ego, and we’ve accepted it. In cases like this, I feel that the ego is a silent, invisible and dangerous detriment to our ability to be loving people in this world. One of my favorite sayings is, “When we start believing, we stop thinking.”
For many of us, our egos end up leading us through life by the nose. And even when our nose bleeds from the experience, we simply wipe the blood off and continue on. Because our egos insist we are still right, whatever the issue. After all, we have to be right, don’t we? Yes, we do… our egos demand it. Think of it… the horror of being wrong. My god, that would be like being naked and vulnerable in the world, for all to see! “Oh no, not me, not me boy! Ain’t goin’ there! I got life figured out in a way that works for me, let’s not start upsetting that balance. No no. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” Yup. The ego’s got them all, and knows exactly when to play them.
I thank the Buddhists, who dragged me, sometimes kicking and screaming, onto the road less traveled. I soon began to admit my weaknesses, which strangely, became one of my strengths. Those darn Buddhists… they’re sneaky. Kind of like my old ego was.