I’m now ready to say with greater certainty than ever before that the main cultural difference that has plagued my mind since I set forth on that fateful journey to adapt to being and living where I was not born is in this:
The difference between the Self and the Ego.
Ego — I have now come to see — is an illusion. Ego does not exist, but is a fictional mask for the real self. Ipso facto, those who relate to others from behind the mask of ego do not, in a substantial sense, exist.
To relate to others as a self is always what I had been used to do. A self is something that, unlike the ego, can be perceived by others in its natural flow of actions and reactions to the world. The ego is a mask set up in order to protect the individual from other people’s knowledge of this freeflow of actions and reactions. The ego is fundamentally political, for it has secrets to keep and a protected agenda to pursue. Yet the ego is also in a fundamental way the unwitting victims of others’ political agendas. For the ego is easily coaxed into giving a name to its agenda — and in so doing, the ego gives itself (and its political power) away.
To address me as ego is to make me responsible for all the comings and goings, the vicissitudes, and withdrawals of my changeable and reflective self. To address others as egos is to demand that they set up internal policemen to stand watch over the movements and flow of their identities (over what may remain of their real selves). The ego-oriented person is really a fortress, with guards within and a sentry in the tower protecting the whole apparatus from intrusions by others (from other fortresses).
When I came to Perth from Africa I encountered a whole lot of people who were nothing more or nothing less than a series of well-guarded fortresses. And when they addressed me as if my mind was already made up about all number of things, I couldn’t even begin to tell them that so far as I was concerned I hadn’t even begun to explore this new environment yet, and therefore had no idea of where I might fit within it.
The self — unlike the ego — is always primarily an unmade-up mind. The self wants to explore, to know, to go forth hunting, as a bee for pollen, to bring back experiences.
By contrast, the ego cannot know. The ego is not a faculty for knowing but for defending others from the aspects of the self that are felt to be vulnerable. To go through life with an ego is to go through life always heavily defended, but to see others spontaneity in engaging with you as always a form of an attack. The ego defends itself from such a feeling of an attack – and in so doing, it defends itself from the knowledge of the world that comes from outside of the ego. Ego’s primary rule: all knowledge must appear to come from within, like a Platonic reawakening to what is already known. Thus ego defends itself, unwittingly, from knowledge that would come from experience — in other words, from “without”.
This is what it feels like to live with an ego: Always to travel in a manner overprotected, as if in a popemobile, or encased in bullet-proof glass. The ultimate condition of those who live their lives as ego is a hunger for actual life’s experiences:
At the age of thirty-seven she realised she’d never
Ride through paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair
By the age of only 16, I had felt almost nothing but warm winds smashing me here and there, moulding my features, messing my hair. I actually thought that this was the only possible way to live — that everybody lived and thought as I did, to the degree that they were human. And after all, weren’t we all?
The idea of “breaking free”, as per the lyrics above, was not actually a common motif where I came from, where the normal condition was to relate to people as if fortressing yourself against “them” was not even necessary. Power was external and physical in nature, and therefore relatively benign in most cases. The antipersonnel mines were at our borders, not in our hearts.
[From Bourdieu (actually, Wiki): Symbolic violence is in some senses much more powerful than physical violence in that it is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals, and imposes the vision of the legitimacy of the social order.]
And so, in a culture where power relations were to a higher degree based on the actual possibility of physical violence, symbolic violence whilst present was also under challenge. Furthermore, the capitalist-based necessity of making one’s sense of power an internal feature of one’s self-against-the-world was not precisely heard of.
The difference between living alive and living dead is that it is to the dead that falls the power of criticism, in order to deride the living: The self-encapsulated ego is a dead form, that can never be brought to life. It can go on as if living, but it can never embrace life. When you speak to me as if I were an encapsulated ego, you are addressing me as a dead thing — something that cannot change, and should not be expected to. So, it is no compliment for you to address me as if I had a fixed identity, independent of time and space. I don’t exist in that form — because as a human being, a living being, I cannot. To believe so is to buy into an illusion — a deadly one at that.
The self is not the ego.
Addendum: One thing I’ve noticed, but never had a real explanation for before, is the exaggerated (at times) demeanour — or at other times, a mystifyingly indirect manner — that many people in this culture have, when they want you to do something for them. Clearly (now that I see it), those of this culture are either trying to coerce or to seduce your ego. But rarely will they speak to your directly, and with an appropriate quality of emotional recognition of you as another person. That has become almost entirely a lost art, in present society. So, it’s either the coercive tactic (favoured by macho men) or the seduction tactic (favoured by those who do not like the image of being macho men). But neither works on me — because neither of these approaches actually seek to communicate. Rather, they seek to establish some kind of leverage in relation to a person. And when was leverage ever actually communication?