“That which comes and goes, rises and sets, is born and dies is the ego.”
― Ramana Maharshi
Existing as a human being requires navigating not only the dangerous landscape of nature but the complex and challenging labyrinth of human society and culture. We have to be able to find our place in time, in this world and the hierarchy of humans. When your mind makes a map of the world around you with all the people and all the object and concepts that exist the ego is the big red dot that signals “you are here!”.
We have to be able to remember and anticipate, plan and execute, make friends, make war, make families, and governments. We have to be able to fit in, and we have to be able to lie. All of this requires a sense of who we are relative to everything we aren’t. We require a sense of continuity with ourselves despite our changing bodies and nature. We require the ego self.
Think of the self as an onion the ego is composed of the outer third or so of layers. It is your identity. It is who you tell people you are, who you tell yourself you are. For most of us, it’s our job, our nationality, our race, gender, sexual orientation, and marital status. It’s your culture and your upbringing. It’s how much power we wield and how much we much we must yield to others.
It’s your favorite movie genre, your hobbies, your dreams, and aspirations. It is your memories and who you love. It is who and what we hate and who and what we fight for. It is who you speak of when you say “I am…” and the answer to the question “Who am I?”. It is where you consciously see and experience the world from, and it is what people consciously experience of you too.
The ego is what endures. It is why you can look at a picture of yourself as a baby or remember your favorite cartoon as a kid or your first love in high school and know that person is the same one that you are now. It is why you can picture yourself in the future and feel a connection. The ego is the person you know best and the part of yourself you have the best chance of understanding, though few of us do.
“If a man thinks he is not conceited, he is very conceited indeed.”
― C.S. Lewis
To most of us, the ego is a bad thing. We think of the egocentric, egotistical, the egomaniac, the selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed, arrogant, and vain. We think of the conceited types who treat the rest of us as if we were only minor characters in their great story. We are just a means to their ends.
Then again, aren’t we all a little conceited? Aren’t we all naturally self-absorbed, self-servicing, and vain. Of course we are, how could we not be? Isn’t the world around us just setting and the people plot devices, minor characters, and extras?
Everything you think, do, and say is about you, even the things you tell yourself aren’t. We’re all more than a little narcissistic. We’re all completely self-absorbed. Conceit is our truth. It is our reality. We have a natural and inevitable obsession with the self because ours is the only perspective we can see from. We are the main character of the story. The reason the story exists. We are each the dead center of the universe. Conceit is common and completely understandable.
I mean, none of us can be truly sure that other people really exist the way that we do. How do I know you feel and think as deeply as me? I do I know I’m really not the center of the universe? From this perspective, all evidence tells me that I am.
“Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.”
― John Lennon
Our egos are inflated, not some egos, all egos. The ego, you, are in incessant need of soothing and stroking. You are a baby and a beast, spoiled and raging deep down. You don’t always show it, but it is in you. The ego’s job is to help you contain it, mask it, and direct it, but you are always putting yourself first.
Our egos may be large, but they are also deceptively weak. Which means we are weak and at the whim of it cowardice. The ego functions best when functions unnoticed. The ego is a liar. It masks itself. It shapeshifts and gaslights. It’s a slippery thing. It blends in and hides in plain sight. It tricks us into becoming someone we may not really be in order to fulfill our deeper desires.
For most of us, the self is cobbled together from bits and pieces of our parents, our friends, media, culture, and religion. It’s made without our input or direction. We never put much thought into what we are made of, and as a result, many of us are made simply of suffering, superstition, anger, and fear.
Most of us are made of weak egos, a weak sense of the self, and an identity that is unstable. We don’t know our place in this world, and we don’t know who we are. We avoid challenging situations and loath to change. Reality can be hard to cope with for the weak ego.
“Humility is, in a sense, admitting how egotistical you are.”
― Criss Jami, Killosophy
But to strengthen the ego feels wrong. To be consciously self-obsessed feels wrong, but remember you already are all about you may as well admit it and control it. A strong and healthy ego isn’t the same as having an over-inflated ego. A strong ego is the sum of a reasonable amount of self-esteem, a strong drive to examine and know the self, and to present a true image of the self to the world with courage.
A strong ego can accept reality readily. The strong ego can control and shape the self and offer peace and stability. Having a strong sense of self and a solid knowledge of who you requires a great deal of humility. A strong ego-self means accepting the reality that you are both the main character and an extra in the background of another person’s universe.
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