The Ego’s Circle Of Mirrors – Part 2

The ego’s difficulty with the happiness of others is relentlessly communicated to children.

Adults stoically tolerate youthful exuberance for a while – their happiness is our priority, right? But the glee soon starts to grate. Our auditory senses become excruciatingly acute as we focus on ‘the racket’ – the laughter, giggles and screams of delight – although the real racket is the one being made by the ego between our ears:

‘For God’s sake pipe down, I’m trying to read my viewspaper!’, ‘Stop showing off!’, ‘Go outside and play.’ ‘Will you calm down before you hurt yourself?!’

Although children are bewildered to receive such hostility for being joyful, the message is clear: curb your enthusiasm.

An octogenarian relative once confessed to me that he felt bitterly jealous of the young: they’re bursting with energy, falling in and out of love, able to run and dance, parties every night. How could he not reflect that his excitement consisted of the daily run to Tesco, worrying about when to put the bins out, and watching the News five times a day? ‘Young people today!’ The real problem – today, yesterday and every day – is that old people were young once and are no longer. Schopenhauer put it bluntly:

‘The fundamental difference between youth and age will always be that the former has in prospect life, the latter death.’ (Quoted, John Gross, ed., ‘The Oxford Book of Aphorisms’, Oxford University Press, 1983, p.342)

Children are a spotlight illuminating our jaded joie de vivre, our age-related grumpiness. Finding fault with youthful joy soothes the ego’s pain – they may have everything we have lost, but we are ‘responsible’ and ‘considerate’.

The deeper problem with all of this is that the young may learn that they are treated far better when they are not happy. When sad or ill, they instantly become the centre of attention; the carping is replaced by concern and kindness. They’re told to take it easy; everything is done for them.

The attention-hungry ego quickly learns that declarations of suffering are a prime way of winning positive regard. Indeed, ‘I feel awful!’ makes us the focus of attention in a way unmatched even by exam, sports and career success. After all, our suffering does not provoke a jealous parental backlash.

The parents of 1970s, global, teen pop sensation, David Cassidy, were both in show business. Alas, the greatest claim to fame of Cassidy’s father, Jack, was being bumped off by Clint Eastwood in ‘The Eiger Sanction’. Cassidy junior wrote:

‘My parents wanted success for themselves so desperately that they couldn’t be happy for me… my fame became torture for my mother as well as my father.’ (David Cassidy, ‘Could It Be Forever – My Story,’ Headline Publishing, e-book, 2007, p.2704)

Children learn the fateful lesson that, if they are sufficiently sad or ill, the universe, in the form of their parents, will intervene to save them. Many take this lesson into adulthood, with grim consequences.

We might imagine that a person apparently, or actually, beset with problems bears no relation to the stereotypical tycoon puffing on a large cigar in the back of a Rolls. But, in fact, our egos can learn to use suffering to make themselves the centre of attention, to justify domineering behaviour, in much the same way. Arguably, this Suffering Ego is an even more insidious form of egotism because it doesn’t look like egotism. This makes it difficult to challenge – we fear we are being brutal, unkind, that any criticism may prove the last straw.

In his short story, ‘Louise’, Somerset Maugham describes the eponymous character as someone who appears to use a heart complaint – which may or may not be quite as serious as claimed – to dominate and control the people around her. Louise marries Tom Maitland who is young, healthy and rich. With his wickedly sardonic humour, Maugham wrote:

‘Tom Maitland was a big, husky fellow, very good-looking and a fine athlete. He doted on Louise. With her weak heart he could not hope to keep her with him long and he made up his mind to do everything he could to make her few years on earth happy. He gave up the games he excelled in, not because she wished him to, she was glad that he should play golf and hunt, but because by a coincidence she had a heart attack whenever he proposed to leave her for a day. If they had a difference of opinion, she gave in to him at once, for she was the most submissive wife a man could have, but her heart failed her and she would be laid up, sweet and uncomplaining, for a week. He could not be such a brute as to cross her. Then they would have quite a little tussle about which should yield and it was only with difficulty that at last he persuaded her to have her own way.’ (W. Somerset Maugham, ‘Collected Short Stories – Volume 1’, Penguin, 1984, p.401)

Finally, Louise is confronted by the sceptical narrator, an old friend:

‘I suppose it’s never struck you as strange that you’re always strong enough to do anything you want to and that your weak heart only prevents you from doing things that bore you?’ (p.404)

Not all Suffering Egos are such control freaks. It may simply be understood that the focus of the conversation should be on their ‘special’ problems and suffering – these are what really matter. The immense weight of the cross they bear is such that their behaviour should be judged by different standards – we must work hard to help them, but who would be so heartless as to suggest reciprocation?

Because the Suffering Ego generates attention and dominance from its misery – exactly as the Successful Ego does from wealth and fame – it has a big investment in continuing to appear miserable to the outside world. The Indian mystic Osho said:

‘It looks illogical, but this is the whole conclusion of all the mystics of the world: that you feed your suffering and you enjoy it in a subtle way, you don’t want to be well – there must be some investment in it.’ (Osho, ‘The Mustard Seed – The Gnostic Teachings Of Jesus The Mystic’, Element Books, 2004, p.328)

Discussing the same theme, Laura Archera Huxley wrote:

‘There is a widespread though subterranean feeling that to be made to suffer – to be a victim – is somehow an admirable position on earth and a good ticket to a special place in heaven.’ (Huxley, ‘You Are Not The Target’, Avon Books, 1963, p.42)

But it is not an admirable position because, after all:

‘When do I do the most good for myself and for others:

‘When I am suffering –

‘Or when I am happy?’

The investment in suffering explains the otherwise bewildering phenomenon whereby the Suffering Ego contemptuously, even angrily, dismisses all proposed solutions. Why? Because solutions threaten the whole basis of the Suffering Ego, much as bankruptcy threatens the ego of a billionaire. Indeed, a clear sign of the presence of a Suffering Ego is precisely this hostile reaction to possible solutions, impatiently dismissed as an additional, intolerable burden.

The Righteous Ego – A Different Kind Of ‘Special One’

The Successful Ego, of course, raises itself above others on its ‘special’ achievements. Football manager Jose Mourinho enraged egos everywhere by saying:

‘Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.’

Sports journalists have never forgiven Mourinho for this comment and love to remind us of it every time he’s sacked by a club: ‘Is Mourinho still “the special one”?’ The journalistic ego deeply resents being a mere commentator on the lives of ‘stars’ hogging the limelight, just as editors and publishers resent being the ‘mere’ facilitators of their authors’ work.

While the Suffering Ego raises itself up on its own ‘special’ problems, the Righteous Ego’s ‘specialness’ lies in its unusual concern for the problems of others. The comedy series, ‘Seinfeld’, loved to nail this form of egotism. After an uncharacteristically selfless act of generosity, Jerry thinks to himself:

‘I am such a great guy! Who else would’ve gone through the trouble of helping this poor immigrant? I am special. My mother was right.’

Torben Betts has been described as ‘An uncommonly gifted playwright’ (Time Out) and ‘a political Beckett’. In his 2012 play, ‘Muswell Hill’, Betts features a character, Julian, who is a fine example of a Righteous Ego. Julian’s widow, Karen, reveals that her tormented husband committed suicide by throwing himself off the cliff at Beachy Head:

‘Sometimes he could be a right moody old sod but I understood him, you see… Because he was such a strict vegetarian he ended up despising all meat-eaters and because he was such a committed cyclist he hated all motorists. And he’d get so wound up by people’s indifference and stupidity that he used to be so full of… well, hatred.’ (Torben Betts, ‘Muswell Hill’, Oberon Books, 2012, p.59)

It is not a small thing to rage at the lack of compassion in everyone around us; it means they are all morally ‘inferior’. On this basis, our egos will feel entitled to rage, preach and patronise – to assert their dominance over everyone – as brutally as any Successful Ego or Suffering Ego. It ought to be a thing of wonder that so many people ostensibly motivated by compassion for human and animal suffering, are ‘full of… well, hatred’.

The complexity lies in the fact that we can be absolutely right – human beings are often indifferent, the social system is structurally unjust, Western foreign policy is rooted in medieval-style greed and violence, and our egos can hijack being right to justify their own tyrannical abuse.

Others may be wealthier, more famous and beautiful, but the Righteous Ego can slip the surly bonds of ‘ordinariness’ and ascend to the moral ‘high ground’. If we have a political argument with someone we perceive as more conventionally successful (a parent, for example), our Righteous Ego may fight tooth and nail to establish our ‘superiority’ in at least this ‘ethical’ dimension.

In short, if the billionaire’s Successful Ego feels ‘superior’ because it has more financial credit, the Righteous Ego feels ‘superior’ because it has more moral credit.

Small gestures will do. Having spent decades working for a climate-killing oil company, or an international bank, we can point to our vegan diet, our meticulous recycling, or the fact that we read the supposedly left-liberal Guardian newspaper, as proof that we are nevertheless more ‘ethical’ than others. The flimsier the support for the Righteous Ego, the more fiercely that support will be defended – even polite, rational questioning of the health benefits of ego-bolstering veganism, or the left credentials of the ego-bolstering Guardian, may set the fur flying.   

A key problem is that the extreme, domineering behaviour of a Righteous Ego can easily be mistaken for extreme compassion – they’re angry, impatient and abusive because they care so much. In reality, predatory individuals and organisations have always understood that they can hide their crimes behind a screen of fake compassion. British readers will recall how, for twenty years, the BBC’s serial child rapist and abuser Jimmy Savile presented a TV programme ostensibly dedicated to fulfilling the dreams of children: ‘Jim’ll Fix It’. Tony Blair, who oversaw the Iraq oil grab costing at least one million Iraqi lives, made much of his party’s ‘ethical foreign policy’. The Italian philosopher Machiavelli wrote:

‘It is not essential… that a Prince should have all the good qualities which I have enumerated above, but it is most essential that he should seem to have them… Thus, it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, religious and upright, and also to be so; but the mind should remain so balanced that were it needful to be so, you should be able and know how to change to the contrary.’ (Nicolò Machiavelli, ‘The Prince,’ 1513, Dover publications, 1992, p.46, my emphasis)

The key word here, repeated twice: ‘seem’. What looks like concern may just be cover for a domineering ego. This frequently becomes obvious when The Righteous Ego is offered a choice between remaining ‘merciful, faithful, humane’ and winning ‘mainstream’ ‘success’.

Ego – The Root Of All Prejudice

It is not difficult to appreciate that sexism, racism, classism and speciesism are all manifestations of ego.

One can feel ‘superior’ because one is a human, a millionaire, a PhD, a vegan, a Greenpeace activist, or afflicted by terrible suffering. And we can, of course, feel ‘special’ on the basis of gender, religion and race. It is a remarkable feature of the ego that it can perceive itself as fundamentally ‘superior’ to others on the basis of differences that are literally skin deep. The self-serving bias is often laughably transparent. Thus, the renowned Swedish botanist, zoologist and taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus, wrote:

‘The [Native] American is obstinate, contented, free; the European, mobile, keen, inventive; the Asiatic cruel, splendour-loving, miserly; the African sly, lazy, indifferent. The American is covered with tattooing, and rules by habit; the European is covered with close-fitting garments and rules by law; the Asiatic is enclosed in flowing garments and rules by opinion; the African is anointed with grease and rules by whim.’ (Carl Linnaeus. Quoted Rudolf Rocker, ‘Culture and Nationalism’, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.303)

Surprisingly enough, then, it is Linnaeus’s own type, the European, which turns out to be keen, inventive, well-dressed and law-abiding, while the rest are obstinate, cruel, miserly, sly, lazy, indifferent and lawless.

One hundred years ago, the anarchist social critic Rudolf Rocker quoted 19th century German intellectuals’ extreme hatred of the French:

‘Hatred of the foreigner, hatred of the French, of their trifling, their vanity, their folly, their language, their customs; yes, burning hatred of all that comes from them, that must unite everything German firmly and fraternally; and German valour, German freedom, German culture, German honour and justice must again soar high and be raised to the old honour and glory whereby our fathers shone before most of the peoples of the earth..’ (Quoted, Rocker, p.219)


‘It comes to the same thing if one teaches his daughters French or trains them for whores.’ (Quoted Rocker, p.220)

Germans are not considered a separate race from the French, but these comments are as dehumanising and hate-filled as more familiar forms of prejudice. It is clear that large numbers of German egos were identifying with the abstract label, ‘German’, and making themselves ‘special’, ‘higher’ than the French and other ‘foreigners’.

Responses to sexism and racism tend to focus on angry denunciations, and above all on demands that ‘hate speech’ should be circumscribed, deleted, even made illegal. But censorship and legal prohibitions do little to address the root cause: the ego’s deep urge to be ‘special’, ‘superior’. Even if we completely censor one form of prejudice, the ego will find some other way to ‘rise above’.

We can rearrange the deckchairs on our Titanic egos if we like – apply a little ‘Me Too’ awareness here, some Black Lives Matter concern there. But until the discussion turns to the issue of egotism – how the ego’s circle of mirrors generates a sense of self, why this ‘image’ is inherently insecure, why it causes us to endlessly compete for ‘special’ attention confirming our status as a ‘star’, as ‘herrenvolk‘, as people worthy of ‘American exceptionalism’ – then we will continue ploughing through oceans teeming with lethal prejudicial icebergs.

The problem is not merely what we say, do, or believe, about different genders and races; it is about the fundamental nature of the ego.

Only when the issue of ego makes it onto the agenda can we begin to understand the key importance of the only antidote ever found with the power to dissolve the ego and its prejudices. In the chapters that follow, we will discuss how that antidote is awareness, introspection, watching, witnessing – the human alchemy of meditation.

This is an extract from ‘Human Alchemy’, as yet unpublished, by David Edwards. Part 1 is available here.