Posted October 22, 2015
Displacing Ego and Narcissism
October 19, 2015
Buddhists have a little axiom that explains more about ourselves than we would
like. They say that you can understand most of what's wrong in the world and
inside yourself by looking at a group-photo. Invariably you will look first at
how you turned out before looking at whether or not this is a good photo of the
group. Basically, we assess the quality of things on the basis of how we are
Rene Descartes must be smiling. He began his philosophical search
with the question: What's the one thing that's indubitable? What's the one
thing, for sure, of which we can be certain. His answer, his famous dictum: I
think, therefore I am! Ultimately what's most real to us is our own
consciousness. And it's so obsessively real that, until we can find a maturity
beyond our natural instincts, it locks us inside a certain prison. What prison?
Psychologists call it narcissism, an excessive self-preoccupation that keeps us
fixated on ourselves and on our own private headaches and idiosyncratic
heartaches. Like the Buddhist commentary on the group-photo, we worry little
about how others are doing; our focus is first of all upon ourselves.
this condition is not a childish thing that can be brushed off by glibly
affirming that we have grown-up, are beyond ego, and are unselfish. Ego and its
child, narcissism, do not go away simply because we consider ourselves mature
and spiritual. They're incurable because they're an innate part of our make-up.
Moreover, they're not meant to go away, nor are they, in themselves, a moral
defect. Our ego is the center of our conscious personality, part of our core
make-up, and each of us needs a strong ego to remain glued-together, sane,
healthily self-protective, and able to give of oneself to others.
usually comes as a shock to people when someone suggests that great people,
spiritual people, have strong egos. For example, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of
Avila, Therese of Lisieux, and Mother Teresa, for all their humility, had strong
egos, namely, they had a clear sense of their own identity, their own
giftedness, and their own importance. However, in each case, they also had the
strong concomitant sense that their persons and gifts did not originate with
themselves and were not meant for them. Rather, like Israel's sense of itself as
chosen people, they were clear that the source of their giftedness was God and
that their gifts were intended not for themselves but for others. And, in that,
lies the difference between being having a strong ego and being an egoist. An
egoist has a strong ego and is gifted, but he understands himself as both the
creator and objective of that gift. Conversely, great persons have strong egos
but are always aware that their giftedness does not come from them but is
something flowing through them as a gift for others.
The goal in maturing
then is not to kill the ego but rather to have a healthy ego, one that is
integrated into a larger self that precisely is concerned with the group-photo.
But coming to that maturity is a struggle that will leave us, too often, in
either inflation (too full of ourselves and too unaware of God) or in depression
(too empty of our own value and too unaware of God).
Maturity and sanctity
do not lie in killing or denigrating the ego, as is sometimes expressed in
well-meaning, though misguided, spiritualities, as if human nature was evil. Ego
is integral and critical to our natural make-up, part of our instinctual DNA.
We need a healthy ego to be and remain healthy. So the intent is never to kill
or denigrate the ego, but rather to give it its proper, mature role, that is, to
keep us sane, in touch with our gifts, and in touch with both the source and
intent of those gifts.
But this can only be achieved paradoxically: Jesus
tells us that we can find life only by losing our lives. A famous prayer
attributed to Francis of Assisi gives this its classic, popular expression: O
divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek: to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving
that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying to
self that we are born to eternal life. Only by denying our ego can we have a
Finally, some wisdom about ego from the Taoist master, Chuang
Tzu: If you are crossing a river in small boat, he says, and another boat runs
into you, you will be angry if there is someone steering that runaway boat; but
you will not experience that same anger if the boat is empty. Why no anger then?
Chuang Tzu's answer: A person who has let go of his or her ego "leaves no
trace". Such a person does not trigger anger in others.