Yes I know your mother is a bitch…

Yes I know your mother is a bitch…

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.

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Comments (4)

  • ronel Reply

    really liked the article. cheers!

    May 13, 2012 at 3:32 pm
  • Wanda Reply

    I find all of this so true, and think it is especially difficult as females. Horrible to become translucent to the younger generation (only when you don’t get the usual attention as in the past do you realize they are much younger than you). Let us keep the spirits up together and laugh at least whilst licking our wounds!

    May 15, 2012 at 11:48 am
  • Chantelle Reply

    Very dramatic. I love it! I feel like so much philosophy is directed at convincing us that we should be increadibly sad about death. My ego’s showing already, neh? I’ve done that dance and come to a point of acceptance that is only occasionally forgotten (like after a very good movie) and then I feel slightly sad again when I recall it, like I’ve just remembered a close cousin is dead and I can’t bring him back. I do hope to actualise the goals that remain on my list, but I also fully intend to embrace even the very superficial – I have to die, but I don’t have to have black hair, or even wrinkles when the time comes. I have to realise that even as I try to equip my daughters with individuality and self-belief, they are as temporary as anything else, and not cling to them weeping; but I can be this contradictory pillar of fortitude with a tattoo scheduled for that afternoon. It doesn’t have to be exclusively anything. It _does_ have to be transitory, or it wouldn’t really matter. I’m more afraid of living too long, or losing my hard-won personality to alzheimers than I am of dying in the next few minutes. No angels, thanks. Back to the senseless energy compost.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:05 am
  • Clinton van Winkel Reply

    As a human species there exists for the individual an unavoidable fated link between our own maturation as well as internal sense of belonging / empowerment / meaning and the environment within which we are nurtured. Genetically imbued personal characteristics and predominant mythological alignment to a particular god/s aside, our parents and social environment within which we physically age either at best fully support or at worst completely thwart the inherent nature of our being. The levels of disillusionment we then experience in mid-life are determined by how much of a provisional self we developed to survive.

    We are ALL faced with this dilemma as there are no perfect parents and no perfect human beings. To the extent that our parents have lived their own lives and set us free from their expectations, would be the extent to which we are freer to live who we authentically are.

    “Sometimes a man stands up during supper
    and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
    because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

    And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

    And another man, who remains inside his own house,
    dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
    so that his children have to go far out into the world
    toward the same church, which he forgot.”
    Rainer Maria Rilke

    Most (and I do mean MOST) people I know in their forties are either continuing the anxious provisional life that was an early survivalist construct or have become frighteningly (and it is terrifying!) aware that in many, if not all ways, their choices have been unconscious and in this way a “mistake”. This applies to their successes, failures, work, partner, etc. And this is correct for all of us – our decisions were unconscious as none of us had the life experience we needed to reflect at any sufficient levels of awareness on the decisions that we were making.
    This awakening terrifies because it legitimately throws us onto ourselves and questions ALL we have held dear thus shaping our identity; we are formed and transformed by that to which we devote time and energy.

    The extent of our reaction – usually rage disguised in a deep depression (a “pressing down” of our authentic self) – is the extent to which we feel betrayed by those that were meant to nurture us and thus the extent we feel alienated from the universe in which we reside; represented by the first father / mother god we knew. To feel the initial rage and disillusionment is vital but it cannot be acted out of as there is no differentiation – it is emotional. If we can bear it long enough, we can then start to distinguish the feelings we have about this awakening. Almost guaranteed is a lake of grief for early unmet expectations and compliant substitutions of essential parts of who we are – though necessary to adjust to what we felt we had to become to be loved and accepted.

    This journey exists for all of us. It is just the extent to which we have adapted that is different. I resonate with James Hollis when he says that the demons of fear and lethargy are there, nibbling at our toes when we make up… and they will devour or souls if we let them.

    My journey has been a significant one of wakening up terrified and disillusioned to a significantly provisional self. I have raged and wept uncontrollably. And over time come to a point where I accept that no one can save me, that my parents in their fragile humanity did the best they could, and that it is now for me in my fragile humanity to re-member those parts of me that have lived autonomously and destructively and integrate them into a fuller increasingly consciously lived life. In this way I empower myself to decide when these parts of me live “out there” and when I hold their energy internally. In this way I use their powerful creatively and in a related way – both to myself and the world I interact with.

    The ego is invested in that which is secure, ordered, and linear. A vital part of our psyche (as is our public persona) that enables us to interact cosmologically in an otherwise chaotic world. However, when the underworld chaos explodes through the veneer of our provisional selves, the fragile ego is left bewildered, afraid, and confused. It is seldom that the ego will give up its control if our lives continue their gentle surface meandering. It usually requires a tremendous shock to our psychic system and perhaps even for the ego to be stream rolled for us to wake up to the discrepancy between our provisional and authentic selves.

    It is not then about getting rid of the ego – we never “get rid” of any parts of our being. To attempt to do so is a violent internal act. Such action only perpetuates what we are waking up to – that there are parts of us that we have disassociated from in our early and necessary need to survive. It is these parts that need a space to be felt and live. Either by our conscious participation and increasing relatedness to them or unconsciously in our underworld where they will then “act out” of their own volition and leave us aghast at behaviour with which we have no internal relationship.
    To the extent that we can allow the ego to expand through increased awareness and thus increasing relationship to aspects of our psyche that hitherto were unknown to us consciously, will be the extent to which we start the painful, difficult, courageous, and life-giving process of reintegrating essential parts of ourselves.

    The internal chaos and associated angst of being human will never go away. All that can change is our ability to increase the capacity of our ego to bear that which is uncontrollable and unknown. The challenge is to expand a peaceful centre from which we live with ourselves and the world around us amidst the continuing chaos (internal and external) of the world we live in.

    And we all need a reprieve from this mad, spinning existence; a vice. Some vices live us and do not feed (rather devour) our life energy. Other vices, if well chosen, can be a necessary and vital regression from the relentless demands of growing up. No one can be conscious all the time – we will burn up!

    And here is the greatest mystery of all. Why do some people use their moments of shocking-waking-up to mature and take on increasing responsibility for themselves and their lives while others continue to invest in a predominantly hurtful self? A question I believe will never be answered.

    May 30, 2012 at 10:43 am

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