How Ego Became a Dirty Word

Kept in check, regularly examined through conscience, and recognized as a personal identity having nothing to do with one’s possessions or achievements, the ego is a marvelous thing…

When did “ego” become a dirty word?

To the best of my understanding, in its original concept, ego meant simply that part of human consciousness which indicates “I”. It was understood to be the ability to distinguish one’s self from others; the awareness that comprehends personal experience. Over time, that original concept enlarged to include egotism—that is, conceit, vanity, or an inflated sense of self-importance. But, at its inception, the idea of the ego was simply that of self-awareness, and of personal identity–an ability which small children begin to develop at about age two.

Yet, somehow that harmless perception of a consciousness which distinguishes the self from others has mutated into a appalling concept; shameful at best, destructive at worst.

While I cannot lay all the blame for this divisive idea on a slew of philosophical books of recent vintage, I do believe they are responsible for perpetuating the concept that there is something inherently reprehensible about the normal human ego. Frankly, that makes little sense to me. Without a sense of separateness, of individuality, we cannot function in the world.

A healthy ego protects. It tells me unequivocally that, no matter what some nitwit says of me, I can make the decision to not believe their words. A well-regulated ego says to one, “Just because I am requested, ordered, to do this by a superior, I need not necessarily do it. I am an individual. I can make my own decisions regarding the rightness or wrongness of the order.” A wholesome, balanced ego is a shield against poor decision and immorality.

Nor, despite the best arguments pondered by those who despise the term, is a normal ego an obstruction to empathy. To the contrary, knowing that I have endured a difficult, painful or troubling experience allows me to look with compassion on others who are undergoing something similar. The “I” that identifies as an separate entity recognizes and therefore empathizes with all the other “I” individuals who are enduring anguish.

Sadly, the concept of a healthy, balanced ego has somehow become almost inextricably confused with egotism. But the two are not the same. “Nothing in excess”, the Greeks are reputed to have carved on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the advice is as apt now as it was those thousands of years ago. An overweening or inflated ego is an excess. It is narcissism, selfishness, and self-absorption. It is a bane and antipathy to sympathy and concern. It does, as those self-same philosophical books decry, express itself in the attachment to things; it warps the personal identity into a mere exponent of possessions or achievements.

Those who lambast the idea of a personal ego seem to maintain the position that our very separateness also separates—separates us from each other, and from the divine within both ourselves and others. Again, that concept makes little sense to me. If I am I, then I am the Divine expressing as this wondrous, personal, individual being: myself. I am a perfect creation from the hand and mind of the Creator. To be in any way separate from my divine self is simply not possible; to think so is total hubris.

And if I recognize that divine and spiritual center within myself, then I must recognize it in all others, who are all also perfect creations of a perfect Creator.

I believe we came, were sent, into this world to experience life as individuals. In doing so, I recall that, in some versions of the myth of Hercules, Zeus desired to know what it was to live as a mortal. And so he fathered a son, Hercules, who would be both god and human. As the creator, Zeus was inextricably interwoven to everything; he was all he had created. But, through his son, he could comprehend what it was to be separate and apart from all he had created; to live as an individual; to be mortal.

Kept in check, regularly examined through conscience, and recognized as a personal identity having nothing to do with one’s possessions or achievements, the ego is a marvelous thing, leading us through a lifetime of personal awareness in conjunction with our spiritual core. Far from being undesirable, it is yet another impeccable creation bequeathed us by our Creator.

One thought on “How Ego Became a Dirty Word

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.