We are used to criticizing the focus on one’s own ego. We treat it as an engine of phenomena like fierce competition, irresponsible hedonism, exploitation of peoples and natural resources. But I think that as we fight these phenomena, we will also rediscover the value of ego.
I think that it can be most fruitful here to reflect on this pejorative side of “ego” by referring to another popular phrase: “big ego.” When we say that someone has a big ego, we point at features of their personality such as being impertinent and overly convinced about their value. Such people often happen to be successful competitors and capitalists: If one has almost unrealistic certitude about oneself and easiness in instrumental treatment of others, this is a good predictor of their success in some businesses at least.
But this kind of ego is only a type of personality, and it does not exhaust what ego can be. If by ego we simply mean that part of ourselves that we think is truly, metaphysically distinct from others, we are not forced to think we can exploit the world.
Quite the opposite is the case. If I think I am in some way truly independent of anything else, I am inclined to think that I have free will, that I am free and that, therefore, I am also responsible for my actions. I can really do good or do evil. My actions matter. Without this conviction I doubt any kind of liberation of a person can occur.
On the other hand, I think it is a real phenomenon that many people think that the term “ego” is anachronistic precisely because they see having an ego to be tantamount to having a big ego. And some, effectively, propagate the view that we should lose our own selfhood, for instance by becoming part of “nature” or “the whole of universe.”
We can observe that, for instance, so-called “Western Buddhism” and psychotropic drugs gained popularity in the last half century. Their promise is to precisely make one stop seeing oneself as an individual, as their own center of things. This promise is attractive because it makes one feel they really cannot be held responsible for what they are doing.
This point can be displayed even more strikingly. It is precisely the individualism we all oppose that also gives birth to de-individualization.
With the democratization of societies, individualism has been becoming more and more dominant. The side effect is that many people feel less and less a part of something meaningful. We often say that this is why primitive nationalism, but also many big social movements, take place. But this is just one alternative to the problem: If we find there is nothing meaningful, we can create something meaningful to us and become part of it.
The other alternative is to forget that we as individuals exist. I can simply claim that I have no ego, and thus I could not be a part of something bigger: To be a part, I would have to be somehow distinct from it and thus have an existence of my own.
And if I say I really do not exist, there is just nature or society, I can continue being an individualist par excellence. For with this very existential decision, denying one’s ego, I decide I am not free and thus I follow whatever is the most dominant fashion in my circles, which could be, for instance, becoming a fierce capitalist.
Of course, for this very same reason, I can imagine a person who lives in some anti-capitalist circles and thinks, “I am nothing, because the impoverished are everything.” Such a person decides to help the impoverished. But the person’s ego has not gone.
In this type of a person I see, firstly, enough certitude that they as individuals are destined to conduct such help. Secondly, often such a person’s ego consists in being recognized by those who receive their help. When the underprivileged are grateful to the person, the person’s ego grows and grows. And the more such a person denies this “guilty pleasure,” the better the person feels.
The problem with the attitude of such a person and all people who act as if they had no ego is that they deceive themselves because they in truth still have ego. Through such deception, their ego also grows in an unhealthy fashion. Because they claim that as individuals they do not really matter, it is also impossible to rationally convince them that there might be some elements in their personality or outlook that can be improved.
A colleague once remarked that to utter a small criticism towards a person nowadays is treated as an attack on the whole of reality. We can easily explain my colleague’s observation: their ego is so overgrown that they mistakenly think it is the whole of reality instead.
An alternative to it is what we can call the confessional mode of existence. In it, I recollect my actions, judge them, try to better them in the future; most importantly, the center of such confession is always my own ego. I need to know myself, recognize my desires and sense my destiny. To do this, I must admit to myself that it is I who decides what I should do, and in this whole process, I must treat myself as a free, existing ego.
And this whole process leads to the growth of one’s ego, but in a harmonious fashion. Not in the sense of being more unquestionably convinced about one’s rightness, but in the sense of being increasingly freer and thus more accountable for oneself and the state of the world. We can call it the growth of “heart,” of “soul,” of “subjecthood,” but it is in essence the growth of ego.
I am trying to develop a big ego, yes, but this means that I want to be more and more loyal as a friend, responsible in my public writings and more original as an individual. And I imagine a future in which everyone cultivates and deepens their egos, like oases that then nourish increasingly sweeter fruits.
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