Ego and other possibilities

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The term “ego” is an ancient one, with Latin roots. It simply means “I” or “Self.” Its first known use in English was in the late 1700s. Psychologists love to argue about whether there actually is an “I” in the sense of predictable personality traits, or whether at any given time, our behaviors and moods are the result of ingesting food, drugs, and alcohol, exercise, responding to the expectations of others, the amount of sunlight in a given day, how much love we’ve soaked in, the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get, and maybe the cosmic forces at work on us.

Of course, a related meaning of ego has to do with our personal valuation of this “I” that may or may not define us. Sometimes, we are more certain of ourselves, our internal integrity, our worth, and our motivations than other times. And of course, for reasons still being debated, some of us vastly, vastly, vastly over-estimate our worth to the world and believe we are entitled to unlimited resources and praise. Why are some people far too humble and others sickeningly prideful?

Though Dr. Bossypants is not Buddhist, she believes Buddhists possess significant wisdom. As she understands it, the Buddhists believe that this “ego” or sense of separate individuality gets in our way of recognizing how artificial the boundaries between apparent “individuals” are. If we had less attachment to ego, we could more clearly see the unity, the connection, the oneness of all the pieces and parts of ourselves and our fellow beings, our earth, our galaxy, and even the time-space continuum.

It is indeed jarring to consider ourselves as one with all living beings, because this would include our current leadership, those aspiring to leadership, our alcoholic uncle, and even terrorists who blow themselves and others to smithereens. Most of us consider it creepy or stupid to seek even a tiny corner of common ground with these fellow human beings who act so abhorrently.

At this juncture, Dr. Bossypants must confess she is about to make claims that can’t be fully substantiated. But as far as it can be studied, it does not appear that the infliction of pain, hatred, deprivation, or even death is effective in changing human behavior for the better. Oh yes, we can change human behavior with such actions, but the change is, at best, temporary compliance, with enhanced motivation for later revenge.

It requires intelligence, tenacity, self-control, creativity, and great strength of character to find common ground with people we refer to as evil. These same attributes, plus wisely-used resources, are necessary to contain, reroute, and/or defeat the spread of destructive behavior. Research suggests that violence begets violence. Dr. Bossypants readily admits that this totally sucks because revenge feels good whereas the application of containment and compassion are tedious, slow, and even dangerous (in the short run).

But the real, long-term dangers are far worse: Ever-deadlier weapons, shriveled empathy, us/them dehumanizing rationalizations, bigger prisons, less education, hungry, abused, or unwanted children, and the increasingly shrill declarations of US FIRST. It just doesn’t work that way, dear readers. The ways we treat each other—including every single “other”—are the building blocks of the future. Just as violence will engender more violence, ultimately, kindness will bring forth more kindness. Humans appear to be uniquely able to make corrective choices. Dr. Bossypants is rooting for us all. With courage, we can choose some better paths.

Trauma–Not good.

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Another fascinating mini-series by Dr. Bossypants is about to begin. Que: Dancing in the streets.

In upcoming blogs, we’ll examine an important and ubiquitous part of being human—stress and trauma. Dr. Bossypants believes that we are in a most precarious position in human history. Sure, we’ve always had wars, violence, sexual abuse, psychopaths, and natural disasters to deal with. Some of our fellow humans have these things for breakfast every day. This does not mean we should normalize suffering, nor any of these precipitators of suffering. In fact, it is time we get serious about eliminating sources of suffering and trauma.

True, we’ve always had war, and killing. But we haven’t always had nuclear weapons, nor have we had the glorious but potentially deadly Internet, nor the other technologies and forms of travel now readily available. Methinks we had better grow up fast here people. Fast indeed. The devastating degradation or complete annihilation of the planet and humans dwelling upon it is in play.

So we begin by examining responses to trauma:

Psychologists have a checkered history when it comes to assessing and addressing the effects of stress and trauma on human functioning. Dr. Bossypants has had significant professional exposure to these issues and, to no one’s surprise, strong beliefs as well.

Defining trauma is difficult and fraught with political and financial motivations that, when examined, are sickening. We, people and governments alike, want to pretend that trauma doesn’t exist, or that inflicting it has no cost.

The word itself comes from a Greek word that means “wound.” To be human is to wound and be wounded. But to be human is to also have choices, and assess consequences. We want what we want, and, tragically, we don’t want to be told that what we want might hurt others, or even cause long-term devastation.

For instance, though some of us may be loathe to bring him up, we must note that Sigmund Freud initially recognized and wrote about the tremendous wounds inflicted on women who were sexually abused. The (white, male, privileged) scorn heaped upon him for these astute observations precipitated a breakdown of sorts, and a recanting of his findings. For this, and many other wrong-headed actions and notions, Dr. Bossypants is not a big fan of Freud.

We will discuss the ubiquitous occurrences of sexual assault in later posts. We only note it here to say that humans are quite resistant to admitting the costs of trauma. Dr. Bossypants hopes to hammer this home in upcoming blogs. But for now, let’s move to the cheery subject of war and related forms of domination.

War is a common preoccupation of those who’ve ascended to power in human communities. It has, until recently, required boots on the ground. Boots with real human feet in them, and real deadly weapons strapped across their real, human hearts. The act of killing a fellow human being, or having a fellow human being try to kill you is traumatic. Period. It is not a sign of weakness or inadequacy to be traumatized by killing. In fact, if killing another human being is not traumatic for the one who kills, then something is wrong. We do not want to pathologize tender, caring, emotionally-mature human beings. Those who kill without pain and remorse are the aberrations of our species, and they need help and/or containment.

Dr. Bossypants isn’t being clear, here’s a summary. For the psychologically healthy soldier, war (of all sorts) is traumatic. This does not mean that that all soldiers will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, but many will. Rightly so. It is a terrible thing to kill other human beings and not feel a thing, even though we have many movies and television shows that would have us believe otherwise. For the general health and evolutionary development of our species, war is to be avoided. We need to go upstream.

In the USA, we are wildly privileged, wealthy, well-fed, lovely people. We need to win hearts and minds by being wise, generous, involved, honest, and fair. We need to embrace liberty and compassion for all, knowing we will get hatred in return for some time to come—there are many, many toxins that stay in the psyche for generations after war, violence, starvation, rape, theft, and brutality have been visited upon a community. But here’s the truth: Violence begets violence. Harsh judgment begets harsh judgment. Selfishness and greed beget selfishness and greed. We will harvest (or be harvested) by what we sow. Without significant healing and maturity, this is a psychological truth.

Therefore, we have to get smarter, kinder, and more generous. This is difficult, because we, too, have been traumatized. We are frightened and have become selfish—even greedy. But this is what Dr. Bossypants believes: We can acknowledge our pain, our own failings, and our woundedness. We can find the moral fiber to choose something besides endless repetitions of human mistakes. We need to open our borders intelligently, feed hungry people creatively, honor other people’s needs and beliefs, and do our best to contain the violence that is simmering near the boiling point on this beautiful planet. Otherwise, I think it will not be long before the planet will be rid of us, and get to heal itself without the pesky human beings now dwelling here.