QA 12. (March 09) In defence of ego


“Struggle is ego.”

“All ambition is vanity.”

“I’ve been meeting my ego a lot recently.”

These three comments came my way over the course of a few days. They all seem to express some nervousness, disapproval or dislike of “ego”. Is that fair? Is ego simply a problem?

I experience ego as a mediator, an interface between me and the world. Or like a skin that keeps my innards in and provides a (more or less) permeable barrier to the world. It is how I appear in the world, how I present myself or am presented to others. In its outward motion, ego expresses intentionality, personality or character. In its inward movement, it filters and interprets my world of experience. Temporally, it creates a continuity of self and world over time. I recognise myself (more or less) in my ego. When I feel self-conscious, ego is one term of that reflexivity. Ego is myself qua (in the capacity of) conscious subject. None of this is a bad thing. On the contrary! I would be in trouble without egoic defences, and ineffectual without ego’s drive to action. A lost soul in the world of deed.

So how does it go – and we know it does – so terribly wrong? Misuse, I think, whether through misunderstanding or impropriety.

Misunderstanding here is a case of mistaken identity. I may experience ego as my identity, I relate to it and relate through it, but I am not identical with it. It is an object of my subjectivity or consciousness. If I am living cleanly, if I’m getting it right, “I” and “ego” work together harmoniously and are virtually indistinguishable.

But ego is a worldly creature; it carries some weight or gravity. If I am lazy or unmindful, seduced or bewitched or otherwise asleep at the switch, ego can take on a life of its own. The world, as it must, takes egos seriously. How terribly pleasant it is to be stroked and praised, to achieve some measure of success. Caught in this dream, ego expands and inflates and would dance in the clouds forever. But how terrible it is to be shamed and rejected – trapped in this nightmare, ego thumps back to earth, shrivels up and longs to disappear. (If we are lucky, someone may be nearby who will help us wake up. Hush. It’s all right.)

And so I see that the virtue of ego is propriety, and the virtue of a self is careful vigilance. And when someone speaks of “meeting their ego” with a wry smile, I recognise that vigilance at work, bringing ego to order. But when I hear that “all ambition is vanity”, I have to disagree. Ambition that feeds, and is fed by, ego’s insatiable desire for illusive rewards is certainly vain, but that’s not the nature of every ambition. “Struggle is ego”? Sure. But where struggle is necessary, ego is the soul’s champion.


5 thoughts on “QA 12. (March 09) In defence of ego”

  1. Posted on behalf of Colleen:

    Dear Helen

    I liked this piece.

    I think the confusion arises because we tend to identify Ego only in a moment of shame – that is, the deflation of inflation – as if our car were in an accident, and therefore cars are only Dangerous and Bad, instead of useful and dependent on all sorts of other things, road conditions, licensing, servicing, other drivers’ driving, not driving badly yourself. And you can go briskly from here to there with a car. (But shame is at the root).

    And what needs to be encouraged is the notion of the watcher, which I think your piece suggests. A bit o disidentification with the ego, but not as a judge and critic and hater, but rather in the spirit of school sports: oh well played, sir! (And…THAT was pretty funny…)

    Anxiety too. We’re in the age of anxiety. (Whatever next).

  2. Posted on behalf of Fiona

    Mmm.. I think that according to Buddhist teachings there can be no virtue in ego as it tends to distort reality to suit the individual’s own narrow interests, whereas being of service to others is the ideal.

    In this context, ambition could be considered an ego activity, if it is has gain for the individual as its purpose. The intention behind thoughts and acts is very important.

    There is the story of the two monks who approached the Buddha and asked him when they could hope to become enlightened. The Buddha looked at the first monk, pondered a while and said “In 12 lifetimes”. The monk was very pleased. The second monk asked “And how many lifetimes before I shall become enlightened?” The Buddha said: “Do you see that large tree at the side of the road? How many leaves are there on it?” The second monk looked at the tree, which was indeed very big and full of leaves, and said “More than I can possibly count”. “Well, that’s how many lifetimes you will have to wait”, said the Buddha. At that, the monk gave up all hope of ever achieving his goal – and immediately became enlightened!

    I guess it all depends on whose definition of “ego” and “self” one is using..

  3. More from Fiona…

    fter further thought, it strikes me that perhaps the ego is the rubbing point between the smaller picture (ego-based) and the bigger one (member of society). We seem perpetually to have to try and reconcile the two selves and their conflicting demands – the survival-of-the-fittest, self-focused entity, and the useful-member-of-society one. Very stressful.

    It seems that Buddhist style meditation ultimately aims to reduce the power of what is deemed the “lesser” thereby increasing the power of the “greater” role. But underlying these two there is also “basic goodness”. Not sure where that falls, but it appears far more subtle and at a far higher level than ego. I think that ego is the shield between self and society, and that basic goodness underpins everything, is essential, is a framework that allows one to see and exist successfully in the bigger picture (if we can access it, the basic goodness, that is). I don’t think that ego likes basic goodness much!

    There was talk in the newspaper last week about research done into the God Spot, the area in the brain that shows the most activity when an individual thinks about spiritual or “higher” things. The researchers claim that, as this is a physiological phenomenon, humans are wired to be spiritual beings. But you would be familiar with this concept.

    From a non-theistic point of view, one can only presume that this has evolved in human beings for some practical function, and my view is that it has the purpose of enabling individuals and small groups to step beyond their self-interest, whose focus inevitably results in negative outcomes in the long-term. Perhaps our biggest handicap is the shortness of our physical lives, coupled with the extremely short-sighted nature of the ego. No wonder there is support for the philosophical concept of reincarnation or rebirth – so much potential wisdom, with just a nanosecond of life within which to develop it!

    Hot darn!

    Dried up now. Ego kicking in. Must do housework and all that little picture stuff.

  4. Posted on behalf of Trisha

    I love love love love your writing. So beautiful, so thought provoking and so nail on the head hitting!

    I’ve often thought of ego like the piece that gets you round the monopoly board – the hat, or dog or car, etc. You need a piece to get round the board, can’t play without one. The problem is when the dog thinks s(h)e’s better than the hat, it’s an illusion surely – because the dice doesn’t take sides, even when it looks like it does!

  5. posted on behalf of Peter

    I liked this one. It’s applicable to my work situation right now. Having to manage a micro-managing supervisor and have my ego as a useful tool not an impediment to dealing with the intense annoyment.

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