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The Ego Phenomenon

An inflated ego often leads to something bad, but can something good also come from it?

There is an interesting phenomenon which exists among people who consider themselves spiritual seekers. Their shared language transcends their differences.  For example, they can be heard in intense conversation about the need to "rid oneself of that great enemy ... the "I"—the "ego."

There is good reason why those who seek a life with more spiritual light despise the trait of an inflated ego. After all, it seems that when you lift the curtain and discover the story behind most of the pain and suffering that humankind has experienced from the beginning of  time, you will find that somewhere in the story it is connected to someone’s ego.

Is it not the case with most wars?  Certainly at the outset of most conflicts, ego was a contributing factor!  Consider the spark that began World War I—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The reaction could have been quickly extinguished if ego did not play such a prominent role. The ripple effect of this dark, human trait—ego—set in motion circumstances that led to 37.5 million casualties!

And how about the tumult that our world is going through right now?

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, liberal or conservative, that is, regardless of your differences in policy, would you consider this hypothesis: that maybe ego—not just principle—played a role in the failure of our politicians to resolve the debt crisis in a timely manner?

It is no wonder why peace-loving people searching for a better world seek to reduce their ego.

But is ego all that bad?  Or, put another way, is ego always bad?

The answer depends on circumstances, and to what end? When you observe all the great developments that man has discovered through the centuries, there too, you will almost always find someone whose contemporaries described the person as “having a big ego."

One cannot discount the great contributions that people with a big ego have made. Even on a less profound level, consider that people at the center of a successful enterprise often have such a large ego that we describe them as ego-driven. And we all know how important successful enterprise is to a thriving society. Would we be better off in society if an entrepreneur suppressed his ego and, therefore, did not realize his great potential? And what of his consequent riches, that may even have provided the basis for philanthropy? So does all this mean that ego is a good thing?

Be humble before every man —Avot 4:10

Perhaps the answer is found in a fuller definition of the word "humble." The common understanding of humility seems to be a kind of self-effacement—that someone has an understated view.  We hear the expression, "Get over your ego."

What is wisdom, if it is not the reconciliation of a seemingly irreconcilable paradox?   Thus, the great Chassidic masters teach us that true humility is understanding one's true value and real talent, and then realizing that value and using that talent, but doing so for reasons bigger than ego.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," Edmund Burke wrote.  And we need not be so dramatic to consider this lesson from the Chassidic masters:  when a person is in a position to bring about positive change in our world, but that person decides to sit in the back lines, lest they come across as "egotistic," then this false sense of humility may paradoxically be the greatest expression of one's ego.

If instead the same person decides to act, despite the attention this action may bring to himself or herself,  this then would be an act of true humility. Ironically, a truly humble person thus may seem to have what we call an "inflated ego." But when that person perceives of something bigger before them, this is the type of ego that can bring true beneficial contributions to our world!

 

J. Flo August 11, 2011 at 10:02 PM
Truly a brilliant, beautiful piece! Your words are a gift, Rabbi Levi -
Rabbi Levi Cunin August 12, 2011 at 06:44 AM
Thank you so much J., for your kind words. Shalom!
Charles Wintner August 12, 2011 at 05:08 PM
The word ego was invented by Freud in his three-part description of the human mind: the id, or energy source; the ego, the self that uses the id for its own pleasure; and the super-ego, the conscience that mitigates the ego's selfishness. To create a better society, Freud suggested not that we need less ego, but more superego.
Rabbi Levi Cunin August 12, 2011 at 08:55 PM
Thank you Charles. While it is true that Freud invented the word “ego”, and its definition… the idea behind “ego” (self awareness and assertion) has been an ongoing discussion long before Freud. But in keeping with the Freud theme, are you suggesting that one can attain the “superego” while holding on to the ego?

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