Two Flavors of Ego

I recently set upon a long-procrastinated goal of lightening my pack by unloading several journals I’d been carrying for years. The task presented a dilemma. Should I simply toss them and lose everything? Should I mail them home and lose access to the ideas?  Or should I copy them and then throw them away?

Not so sentimental, I chose the third.

As I was tediously typing out my past insights and opinions, I found myself cringing, again and again, at what I’d written. At times it was physically painful to copy. I wanted to edit what I’d written.  But I didn’t, because deeper was the desire to preserve my past self’s tone. It was more important to keep the record of my ignorance.

So aside from spelling errors, I carbon copied. I kept every pathetic complaint, every self aggrandizement, every arrogation, every sheer delusion, every mawkish sentiment, and every bigoted, self-pitying, hypocritical, and boring word.

My stabs of embarrassment fell into three broad categories; ones of arrogant, mawkish and pitiful reflection. Sometimes I wrote about being the greatest, wisest person on Earth for having some mundane inspiration, doing some atypical task, or scorning some popular activity. Other times I’d whinge and complain about trivial and forgettable obstacles. And still other times I’d excessively poeticize some experience to the point where the saccharine tone made me gag.

I hope my past self was in actuality wiser, humbler, and more eloquent than he appears in his writing. I hope that I won’t appear so deluded, arrogant, and dull to my future self. Maybe that’s unavoidable though. But this experience has bifurcated my viewpoint on ego. It occurs to me there are two flavors.

There’s the ego of retrospect, which is the guy in the notebook. At times he thinks he’s the best and brightest, with the greatest ideas and insight, and the most monumental personal accomplishments. He mocks the struggles of others, and belittles the difficulty those people have in solving them. He then goes on to hypocritically bemoan his own troubles, and pathetically exaggerates their severity. He is paradoxically arrogant about both his triumphs and his failures, his strengths and his weaknesses.

But ultimately I don’t mind that form of ego. I don’t mind if people imagine their triumphs, and their struggles, as the greatest in the world. Over-inflated sentiment about the experiences of our lives gives personality its flavor. It makes people interesting. Stories are better when told as if they are the funniest, scariest, most adventurous ever.

There’s an impolite pleasure in constructing a little ivory tower to sit in for a little while. This is a sin in the politically correct 21st century.  But like deep-fried donuts that’ll make you look ugly in excess, sometimes it’s worth indulging.

And should someone’s self-aggrandizing become too eye-rollingly obnoxious, or should someone’s lugubrious demeanor begin to stifle like a wet blanket, then for my part, it’s up to me to break their state.

Some of my favorite people in the world are the ones who think arrogantly of themselves, but when I take the piss out of them, they’re able to laugh along with me. They even add to the parody, piling on more absurd caricatures, and participating in the roast. The self-assurance in those moments almost validates their prior arrogance.

And as for the down-trodders, I love the people who let go of their woeful fixations when I make the effort to cheer them up. Sure life is tough, and in those moments we both know nothing is getting solved, but we choose to ignore the sad side of life to enjoy a brief stint of laughter.

It’s those who cling to their depressive states that create needless frustration.  And those offended by playful ribbing exhibit a foolishly brittle mind. These reactions illustrate the second form of ego; centric-ego.

This form of ego is defined by a mental rigidity.  Its error lies not in the content of the beliefs, but in how they are managed when contradicted by others.  How one conducts his beliefs makes all the difference.

Ego-centrism can take the form of a stiff claim on a matter of ambiguous fact. The centric ego denies the validity of any alternative perspective, and insists on being ‘right.’ It manifests as a failure to admit foolishness, incompetence, or ignorance, from fear of weakness. Or it appears as a stubborn conviction that one’s problems are insurmountable and unique. The centric ego is incapable of escaping its own ideas.

Centric egos lumber through life crashing into every interpersonal obstacle that might otherwise be avoided with a small amount of flexible humility. They displease others with their loud, prideful obtrusion. They reek of an underlying insecurity. And the obliviousness to their own folly is a black stain on their character. Centric egos are the slovenly, unkempt expressions of the mind.

This is the ego I find truly pernicious because this is the ego that disrupts otherwise effective cooperation.

The retrospective ego is innocuous. Thinking that your highs are higher, and your lows are lower, has never caused any substantive harm. Arrogating yourself wisdom, charisma, intelligence and competence does not defile any tenet of human well-being.

Without pushing the bounds of exaggeration into pure delusion, that self-assurance seems to me an attractive quality, even an effective one. Attractive for the confidence and enthusiasm. And effective because, un-plagued by worries or doubts, more attention is devoted to any particular task at hand.

So I forgive my past self his arrogance. He’s a kid just learning to be confident. For the first time in his life he is proud of his character, so no wonder he takes it too far at times. Hopefully he crashed into the boundary between confidence and arrogance enough times so I now know where it lies.

Going forward I really won’t remain dutifully behind that boundary and never dare to express myself generously. The fruit of arrogance is sweet and grows only beyond that border.  And the local architecture, the ivory towers, are majestic domiciles for brief visits. But I know where that territory is, and can humbly admit my trespass when called out.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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