Yes I know your mother is a bitch…Anja van Kralingen
Recently a young man (well not that young really, late thirties) came to see me for some coaching. He was fairly distressed; he felt a certain lack of direction, an absence of meaning in his life perhaps. Looking back on his life he saw a litany of failures, missed opportunities, could-have-been’s, should-have-been’s, mistakes, wrong turns, unfortunate turn of events and a few regrets thrown in for good measure.
The young man was familiar with some pop-psychology and understood the importance of taking responsibility for his own life.
He certainly didn’t wish to blame his problems on others. He didn’t, for example, wish to blame his castrating mother or his overbearing father. He definitely didn’t wish to blame his older sister who had taken so little interest in him as a child. He knew better than to blame his wife who reminded him so much of his mother (frigid bitch that she was).
He believed that his own shortcomings had played their role in bringing him to his present miserable condition. He had been born intellectually gifted, tall and good looking, but socially inept, physically clumsy and challenged on many subtle levels.
Such are the vicissitudes of fate.
Despite himself he wondered how things might have been, had he a loving mother and supportive father. Had he been given some direction and nurturing as he grew up? Perhaps had he met a different kind of woman, who knows how things may have turned out?
What had really scared this young man though, was he had suffered a minor angina (cardiac episode) and become all too acutely aware of his own frail mortality. As he correctly pointed out, he really wasn’t that young anymore. And so much of what had buoyed him as a young adult seemed perilously fragile or now totally absent from his life.
He could say, well there was a time. But alas that time was no longer.
As he sat there staring intently at me clearly seeking an answer, some sage advice, some creative new way of viewing his life so that the meaningless became meaningful, so that wasted years and missed opportunities became the wisdom and patience of a man who knew he hadn’t yet been called up to the plate, but that his turn to bat was upon him, that what had appeared wasteful in one light, now turned out strategic and wise in another.
In other words I had the sense he would have liked me to say.
I am so pleased you have come to see me. For I want to tell you the best that life has to offer lies ahead of you. The world has not yet seen the best you have to offer. You are a beautiful spirit and your kindness, love, inner joy, peace and equanimity are a boon to all who meet you. Shine my beautiful brother, shine. Life has a plan for you young man fear not. Your patience and long suffering are to receive bountiful reward. The fruit hangs before you, you have only to reach out and pluck it.
And part of me wished to say just such a thing. I concede that this was motivated in part by a purely pragmatic reason, this was, I imagine, the best way to ensure a continuation of our commercial arrangement. What was he paying me for after all, if not to tell him that it would all be okay?
It wasn’t the only reason though for my ambivalence. For I could see my own life mirrored all too clearly in his narrative. Did I too not seek a continuation of my own narcissistic fantasies after all?
However, moved to call it as I saw it, this is what I wanted to say.
Yes,I suspect the best is behind you. Not that it was ever that good. It is true your mother sounds like a bitch and your wife too. However both of them pale my friend in the face of the true bitch which is life itself. Your youth is lost never to return and it sounds as if you wasted it for the most part.
Nevertheless be that as it may let us consider what lies before you. Well definitely aging, loss of function and in time decrepitude and disease if only the disease of ageing. Your popularity with the opposite sex can only decline rapidly from here. Your earlier charm, charisma and youthful appeal are now but memories and shadows.
Finally then you will die. Will it all have meant something you ask? Will your pure spirit be carried by winged angels to the promised paradise?
Frankly I doubt it.
Even if we were to subscribe to such fairytales what would you have done, have accomplished to deserve such elevated treatment? Paradise for one such as you would seem a sin against all that is holy, it simply doesn’t make sense.
No far more likely is that your body will simply rot away. Dust to dust as they say. And your life will have meant little in the greater scheme of things.
A vague sense of empathy stayed my tongue- at least for that session, and I mumbled something about yes I could see how he was in a bit of a spot and let’s see what we could do about navigating a way forward….
As for my own existential angst…
Well I live with it every day. What else am I to do?
Turn to religion.
Anesthetise myself with woman, alcohol or narcotics.
Revel in past glories (modest as they were in my case), or fantasise about future possibilities.
Whilst none of those particular vices are my vice of choice, like most of us I have my ways of escaping the sheer hell of sober existence. The brutality and inevitability of my ego’s sheer and certain annihilation, first by life and then by death loom large in my mind’s eye.
I think that is how it goes for most of us upon reaching mid-life. We are faced with a choice of either the continued illusion of narcissistic existence, supported by vain self glorification which can only end in defeat, escapism in one form or another, a premature death, or coming to terms with the ego’s defeat and figuring out what, if anything, lies beyond its devastation.
I would guess this applies to even the most successful amongst us, money, success, fame and achievement whilst valuable in their own right do not prolong the egoistical existence indefinitely. Old age and death come for us all it’s as simple as that.
I think that the ego is like a matchstick, admittedly a very durable and robust matchstick, but a matchstick none the less. It is a matchstick which burns for a time in the face of the void and keeps the darkness at bay, and it is also a beam which holds the weight of the void above its head until one day that weight it simply too much and the matchstick snaps.
So the question I suppose is what lies beyond the matchsticks existence- if anything?
Beyond the ego
First of all notwithstanding what I have said I don’t think the ego can (or should) be truly removed from the equation of life. As long as we are alive the ego will be along for the ride. There is a significant school of thought, specifically Indian mysticism, who would dispute this. The yogis and Indian holy men claim that the ego needs to be transcended and in the process obliterated in order for self realisation to take place.
Enlightenment is the ultimate defeat of the ego.
However I suggest that there are good reasons to question whether anyone who has not actually become self enlightened, i.e. attained satori, can truly understand this doctrine. Also being a student of Western Mysticism the only path to redemption, that I can speak of, is the one that retains the ego. Christianity is the religion of the ego.
The “good news” of Christianity is the survival of the ego into eternity.
We can get some clue then from the Christian myth as to what is meant by the ego beyond its original narcissistic state, if we consider the life of Christ as an example of this idea. It is only at the time of his crucifixion, once death and total defeat of the man Jesus of Nazareth are certain that he becomes the Christ being. Christ emerges once all narcissistic pretentions are over. Nevertheless Christ does not become synonymous with God the father; he remains an independent and distinct being.
The truth that is pointed to in the Christian myth is the idea that there resides in each of us a second bigger personality. This personality lies latent during the narcissistic phase of our existence. It can only emerge with the defeat of the ego. With the emergence of this second personality a new ego is formed, one that can carry out the vocation you were born to.
That is the idea anyway. I think there are some difficulties in taking this too literally or formulisticly. Specifically, many people seem to be born into their vocation and discover it at a young age; in fact one might argue that the greatest achievers almost uniformly fit this profile. Secondly the vast majority of people appear never to reach this elevated state of the second personality and the actualisation of their vocation.
How can we make sense of this?
Of Matchsticks and Messiahs
Let’s turn once again to the Christian myth.
Consider Jesus of Nazareth prior to his crucifixion. He was clearly a man who had discovered his vocation, holy man, healer, religious and political maverick, all seem like candidates for that vocation. We could even call him a Messiah. However only at the point that he was crucified and rose again can we legitimately say that he became the Christ (i.e. the Messiah) and a God.
So in the annihilation of his personal ego and through the birth of his divine ego he goes from being a man of God to a God man.
Where does this leave the rest of us? Do we need to be crucified in order to find our vocation and fulfil our destiny? Well let’s hope not :-). That seems far too much like the Christian embrace of suffering which legitimises illegitimate suffering. For my part I certainly don’t aspire to martyrdom!
That being said, the recognition of the limitations of our narcissistic aspirations, and the destruction of the personal ego that comes along with this, is not exactly a barrel of laughs. This brings us to the second category of objection- why do so few people realise their vocation?
Many are called but few answer.
If we step out of the myth of the second personality for a moment we can identify numerous social, economic and psychological reasons why many (most?) don’t realise their full potential. Nevertheless in the spirit of this idea, I would say that the pain that accompanies the birth of the second personality is too much for many to bear. And their anesthetising this pain, through the many ways of doing this, frequently results in a still birth.
So finally then what is the answer to this dilemma?
I don’t know so am not going to pretend to know. However what I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that your ego like mine, at least in its narcissistic formulation, is doomed.
The rest, as they say, is up to you.