The human mind stands at the centre of a circle of mirrors.
The mirrors – parents, friends, lovers, teachers, strangers – constantly reflect images of who we are. We’re told we’re annoying, adorable, stupid; that we’re a show-off, that we’re not academic, that we’ve got a nice voice, that we’re a fast runner, dance beautifully, and so on.
The reflections collect as a nebulous mass in which we perceive an indistinct outline of an individual, a personality, a self – ‘me’. This is the ego, the mind identifying itself with impressions from the outside world.
But how is this possible? How can we shape a solid sense of self out of a chaos of reflected impressions? The answer is that the mind has an astonishing capacity to identify with almost anything.
The body, of course, is ‘mine’ – if someone mocks my shape, colour or size, they mock ‘me’. But beliefs are also ‘mine’ – if someone attacks ‘my’ religion, ‘my’ politics, ‘my’ country’s flag, I may again react as if they had attacked ‘me’.
I identify with ‘my’ job. Who am I? I’m a writer, a doctor, a scientist, a plumber. In the morning, a businessman or woman puts on a suit which, for the ego, becomes a kind of second skin, a part of the self. It tells us we are an ‘executive’, perhaps a ‘manager’ or ‘managing director’; we are ‘white collar’ or ‘blue collar’.
Leaving the house, we put on a car – a metal suit, a metal skin. If we’re driving a Jaguar, we know we’re prowling near the top of the motoring food chain. We feel the power of the engine as our own, we share the status of the brand. We roar away from the Mini at the traffic lights with the same sense of superiority felt by the bodybuilder for the bespectacled nerd.
Arriving at our workplace, we take off our car and put on our office; our egos instantly absorbing any prestige associated with our job title, department, company brand, which all become part of the composite self. BBC journalist and former editor of the Independent newspaper Andrew Marr wrote:
‘To be a national newspaper editor is a grand thing. Even at the poor-mouse Independent, though I didn’t have a chauffeur, I was driven to and from work in a limousine, barking orders down my mobile phone. In the office, I was the commander.
‘Eyes swivelled when I arrived and people at least pretended to listen when I spoke. The Indy might be small, but she was mine.’ (Marr, ‘My Trade – A Short History of British Journalism,’ Macmillan, 2004, pp.190-191, my emphasis)
Actually, ‘she’ was not just ‘mine’; ‘she’ was ‘me’.
Arriving home at the end of the day, we take off our office, car and suit, and put on our house or flat. Property is a crucial mirror reflecting our status back at us. An Englishman does not just view his home as his castle; he views his ‘castle’ as an extension of himself.
Anyone visiting propertied man or woman will find themselves in the presence of a well-appointed, detached or semi-detached ego; one that may be polite and generous, but which will be very much in charge of what happens in ‘my’ castle-suit, in ‘my’ house-skin. Comments of this kind are heard:
‘I won’t be spoken to like that in my own house.’
‘Sorry – my house, my rules.’
In visiting other people, we take off our own property suit, shrink to human size and, in a sometimes dramatic and observable change, meekly defer to other Property People – especially towering, Downton Abbey-sized giants.
For more than 25 years when I visited my parents’ bungalow in Kent, I used to top up the water in their small, neglected goldfish pond. I’d pull out weeds, tighten the anti-heron netting, drop in some orange fish flakes. As old age took hold of my father, he became a mostly silent, owl-like presence perched on the end of the sofa looking for things to criticise. Once, in a dry spell, he noticed I’d reeled the hose out to give the pond a much-needed top-up. From the sofa, he looked at me severely as I entered the lounge:
‘Are you putting more water in the pond?’
‘Well, turn it off.’
‘It costs me a lot of money.’
Taking a leaf from Gandhi’s satyagraha strategy of non-violent resistance, I replied:
‘No problem, I’m happy to pay for it. How much do you want?’
I quickly held out a twenty pound note, which my father gruffly trousered and, as quickly, untrousered following a humanitarian intervention from my mother. As I left the room, I heard him say:
‘That bugger defies me in my own house!’
The Incredible Shrinking Springsteen
It makes sense that a self composed of reflected opinions will be insecure, transient, a trembling mass of contradictions. No matter how ‘superior’ and exalted, the ego is always anxious. The circling mirrors may spin a splendid image of a ‘successful’ self, but it can never be more than an illusion. It is no more substantial than a rainbow; there is no solid ground on which to stand.
This is why even the most ‘famous’ and ‘successful’ among us are bewildered by the fact that they can be confident to the point of arrogance and yet haunted by self-doubt.
A striking example was provided when Bruce Springsteen described his reaction to former US President Barack Obama’s suggestion that they do a podcast together:
‘… my first thought was: “OK, I’m a high school graduate from Freehold, New Jersey, who plays the guitar … What’s wrong with this picture?” My wife Patti said: “Are you insane?! Do it! People would love to hear your conversations!”’
Faced by the even more famous and powerful Obama, one of the most successful, highly-respected rock stars of our time shrank to the size of a lowly high-school student. Springsteen, himself known as ‘The Boss’, added of Obama:
‘He’ll go out of his way to make you feel comfortable, as he did for me so that I might have the confidence to sit across the table from him.’ (My emphasis)
As this suggests, there is always somebody around the corner who is ‘superior’ in some way, who has even more attention credits. And the world may have reflected ‘beautiful’, ‘talented’, ‘young’, ‘beloved’ back at us yesterday, but what about today?
And so the ego must forever seek out more reflections, more attention. Without them, the self-image starts to dissolve. As yesterday’s reflections fade, the feeling grows that we are becoming colourless, insubstantial. If this continues long enough, we start to feel like a has-been, a ghost, a ‘nobody’. It is a feeling highlighted, of course, by the presence of ‘somebodies’.
Wherever children are playing, inevitably we hear the ego’s mantra:
‘Look mummy! Look at me! Look daddy!’
We can never have enough attention and this quickly becomes the dominant theme of our lives.
We seek ‘fame’ but we’re actually seeking attention. We seek wealth but we’re seeking attention. We seek to ‘express ourselves’ on Twitter/X, Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok, but we’re seeking attention. We seek political power but we’re seeking attention, attention, attention. We seek to ‘save the world’, but we’re seeking attention. We want our circle of mirrors to be packed with applauding admirers. We don’t much care about their motivation, or ours.
What we call romantic ‘love’ is often a two-way flood of ultra-positive reflections boosting self-image: ‘You’re so easy to talk to, I feel like I’ve known you all my life.’ ‘I’ve never felt this way about anyone before, I can’t stop thinking about you.’
When this flow of positive attention is suddenly reduced – or, worse, diverted towards someone else deemed even more ‘special’ – we are tortured.
When the torrent of parental attention lavished on a toddling girl suddenly diverts to a bouncing baby boy, the girl’s emerging ego is bereft. For the rest of her life, she may give attention to her younger brother through gritted teeth, especially in the presence of her parents. Any good qualities he might have will become negatives in her mind precisely because they earn him yet more stolen attention! Deep into middle-age and beyond, he may forever be viewed as a selfish, attention-seeking little parasite of parental love.
‘Every Time A Friend Succeeds…’
We are told: ‘Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.’
It’s not quite true. In fact, it’s sobering to examine how we really feel when confronted by the good fortune of others. Despite perhaps being genuinely pleased on one level – we care about them, we’re happy that they’re happy – our egos feel awkward, uneasy, marginalised. We find ourselves guiltily swatting away those three little words that seem to be spoken by a grisly inner five-year-old; words that we hardly dare express, even to ourselves: ‘What about me?’
We supply the obligatory congratulations, of course, but our eyes fail to match the smiles on our lips that quickly crumble at the edges – we are not enjoying the fact that their success makes our lives seem humdrum by comparison. We sit cold-eyed, grinning a little too fiercely, as they tell us about their lottery win, their new ‘celebrity’ friends, the incredible adventures on their round-the-world trip. The conflict and pretence are exhausting. Later, revenge will be exacted: ‘Can you believe it? She’s just won the lottery and didn’t buy a single round of drinks!’ or ‘Did you see him splashing his lottery money around the pub? Flash git!’
As novelist and wit Gore Vidal said:
‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.’
If we are tempted to dismiss Vidal as a cynical modern, consider this observation on 17th century Zen master Bankei:
‘After Bankei had passed away, a blind man who lived near the master’s temple said to a friend:
‘“Since I am blind I cannot watch a person’s face, so I must judge his character by the sound of his voice.
‘“Ordinarily when I hear someone congratulate another upon his happiness or success, I also hear a secret tone of envy. When condolence is expressed for the misfortune of another, I hear pleasure and satisfaction, as if the one condoling was really glad there was something left to gain in his own world.
‘“In all my experience however, Bankei’s voice was always sincere. Whenever he expressed happiness, I heard nothing but happiness, and whenever he expressed sorrow, sorrow was all I heard.”’
Closer to our own time, tennis ‘star’, John McEnroe, described life back home after his first, unexpected success at Wimbledon:
‘But from the moment I got back, the people I had grown up with wouldn’t let me feel the same, or so I thought. Suddenly I was Somebody, while they were still nobodies… My friends weren’t quite sure how to handle it and neither was I.’ (McEnroe, ‘Serious’, Hachette Digital, 2008, p.64)
‘Celebrities’ try hard to emphasise their humility. They know that fame and fortune generate a store of public resentment that can explode at any time. It’s child’s play for our egos to rationalise turning on ‘stars’ who are ‘over-rated’, ‘over the top’, ‘over the hill’. Whenever someone is praised, our alarmed egos reflexively look for counter-arguments.
Why are gossip magazines and TV programmes so vicious about ‘celebrities’, and why do people love to read and watch them? Because ‘stars’ sail far ‘above’ us in the attentional firmament – they get the public interest and ‘high life’ we crave and deserve. Down here, ‘unknown’, our ego quietly plots revenge.
In the Guardian, John Harris observed that Philip Norman’s best-selling biography of The Beatles, ‘Shout!’ contained an ugly flaw:
‘… a glaring bias against Paul McCartney, who was portrayed as a kind of simpering egomaniac, and a correspondingly overgenerous view of Lennon, who, Norman later claimed, represented “three quarters of The Beatles”’.
Norman later confessed that his damning view of McCartney ‘was a reaction to how much he [Norman] had once not just admired him, but wanted to somehow be up there, in his place.’ (my emphasis)
With admirable honesty, Norman said:
‘If I’m honest, all those years I’d spent wishing to be him had left me feeling in some obscure way that I needed to get my own back.’
Robert Pirsig, author of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, said of his fans:
‘They love you for being what they all want to be, but they hate you for being what they are not.’ (Quoted, Tim Adams, ‘Zen and the art of Robert Pirsig,’ The Observer, 19 November 2006)
The hate is real. It’s no surprise that when people deemed ‘somebodies’ are attacked and even murdered, it’s quite often by people tormented by the (baseless) conviction that they are ‘nobodies’.
Norman underestimated the extent of the problem; even if he had not wanted to be McCartney, the admiration he felt would have been sufficient to provoke his ego to seek revenge. Whenever we admire someone, our ego is painfully aware that it is looking ‘up’. That humiliation has to be put right, balanced.
If we die a little when others succeed, we surely thrive a little when others fail, applying a reassuring balm to our ego’s wounds. There is the subtle relief that it is not ‘me’ enduring the problem – we feel newly alert to the comfort and security of our own lives, and fearful that the same fate might befall us. We are happy to offer help, because doing so indicates that our life situation is preferable in this moment – a welcome boost to our self-esteem.
This accounts for the extraordinary fact that people so often hate to be offered advice or help which, however useful, obliges the recipient’s ego to accept that it holds an ‘inferior’ position in that moment. After all, he is claiming to know something we don’t; she thinks she’s more in the know – wiser, more experienced – on this particular issue. Our ego becomes anxious, looks for a way to restore parity.
An astonishing number of arguments and feuds have their origins in the offering and rejection of advice. Parents are particularly annoyed by their children’s sage advice:
‘I wiped his bum as a kid, now he’s telling me how to live my life!’
This reaction, in turn, of course, is deeply offensive to the child’s ego – advice is being rejected precisely because he or she is still seen as ‘lower’, as ‘just a child’.
We may feel uneasy even when someone recommends a film or book:
‘You have to read this!’
‘Oh, do I?!’
The implication: they have discovered something important that we don’t know about. Our ego gets twitchy: they clearly think they’re better-read. Come to think of it, perhaps they are better read. Perhaps they do have more ‘sophisticated’ tastes.
If someone lends a ‘serious’ novel to a kidult fan of Harry Potter, the kidult’s ego will sizzle as they scour the ‘serious’ reader’s face for the tiniest sign of superiority indicating she is a missionary come to elevate our literary tastes. If in doubt, just in case, the ego will take revenge. This may manifest as a physical inability to pick the book up. If the book has been written by the giver – writers order piles of extra copies to selflessly donate to friends, family and any other victims they can find – it will take a Herculean effort for the recipient to even get past the front cover. If the giver is a literary or political ally – i.e., a competitor – the book will likely go straight up onto a shelf:
‘I’ve read everything he has to say a hundred times!’
This is an extract from ‘Human Alchemy’, as yet unpublished, by David Edwards. Part 2 is available here.