This is very interesting and worth a read. Clearly it gives cause for reflection to all of us, particularly those of us who push our writing, photography etc on social media. Yet the most interesting aspect for me is the addressing of the ‘spiritual ego’:
…I discovered that some of the planet’s most difficult and arrogant people have devoted their lives to ‘making the world a better place’. They claim to be driven by compassion, but their harshness and hatred of criticism (as though their very souls have been scalded) suggest otherwise. Yes, they want to change the world, but their ego’s concern is to be a recognised ‘mover and shaker’, to be seen and remembered as ‘important’.
I have lost count of the number of conversations about this I’ve had in the past 18 months or so. Certainly Johann Hari and his acolytes sharply exposed the self-serving nature of much righteousness, where ‘truth’ and a moral good is pursued only as and when it reflects well on the individual(s). It’s something I also encounter working in the third sector, where people are ostensibly ‘doing good’ and are rarely criticised as a result despite it sometimes being clear that they have very self-serving motives. The final sentence of that quote particularly resonates as there are many people drunk on their altruism while obsessing over being paid more, achieving more, being more noticed, than their peers.
Behaviour related to this is also discussed in the article, where people cravenly flatter the egos of their ‘superiors’ in the hope that they will garner attention. When I read the description of how:
We approach the retweet ‘stars’ humbly, heads bowed, hoping to garner more followers and enhance our self-esteem: ‘Hi @justinbieber…’ oblivious to the fact that, all the while, our bellies are sliding along the floor. They look down at us past long, well-followed noses.
I was instantly reminded of a recent edition of ‘Question Time’. Yet I was also reminded of my own sharing of Glenn Greenwald’s articles and wondered why I often copy him in when I do so. It hit home. Recognising ego is surely the first step to ‘getting over yourself’ but it is far from the only one. It’s a constant thing and sometimes it takes a piece like this to give you that slap across the face and remind you that sharing other people’s work is not necessarily doing much of anything, and certainly not worth feeling superiority over.
The piece is certainly timely in that it was only Sunday evening when I was most recently discussing the idea expressed here: namely, how we deal with the realisation that our lives are pretty ordinary and mediocre and we’re not anything special. I’m at the age now where it’s an issue common in my life, both personally and in people around me. How people deal with it is hugely important in terms of achieving some kind of lasting happiness.
Where the piece stumbles, I think, is in its conclusion that:
The ego is above all characterised by seriousness and self-control – it demands respect and admiration. It is constantly fearful that a tiny slip will expose the self-seeking reality. The egotist feels uncomfortable and vulnerable in the presence of self-ridicule and humour.
It’s actually far more subtle than this. Just as ‘spiritual egotism’ requires a rather sophisticated sophistry, many afflicted by it are very well-versed in the appearance of being humorous and unserious. They can make the right noises about not taking themselves seriously and will take pride in their ability to speak about things which they really think are beneath them (witness the scorching irony around discussions of most reality tv.) No, the real ‘weakness’ of this egotism is, as with all kinds of egotism, the inability to handle criticism which hits home. We can all laugh at ourselves when it’s done on our own terms. It’s not so easy when it involves questioning the aspects of ourselves which our ego is based on. This is particularly noticeable when combined with other aspects of the piece: so people will be fiercely dismissive of serious criticism from those they clearly consider to be beneath them or people will respond to criticism with the line quoted, “all you can do is carp!” The appearance of humour and self-ridicule is quickly dropped and the brittleness beneath is exposed. So humour alone is definitely not enough to characterise the ‘truly compassionate’ – indeed, in many ways it’s actually just another aspect of this peculiarly modern kind of egotism.