Long ago I did a personality test for a friend of mine who was training to be a psychologist. He marked it and pulled a face.
‘What’s up?’ I asked, fearing he’d spotted Hitler tendencies … or worse!
‘You will be relieved to hear you have a personality,’ he told me, po-faced. ‘Only … you have a very low ego score. That could give you problems in future.’
I looked it up. The ego was a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. I’d never given it much thought. I felt OK about myself, apart from some anxiety arising from being caught in the middle of my parents’ arguments. I didn’t feel the need to big myself up, as they say these days. Perhaps ego was something you’d need if you felt insignificant.
I’d always enjoyed sharing things more than owning them exclusively. Watching something was always enhanced if others were viewing alongside me. Pleasure was more than doubled by the vicarious thrill of entering another’s experience.
But problems? I didn’t seem to have one-upmanship, the competitive desire to beat other people. I didn’t surround myself with status symbols or go in for conspicuous consumption. I didn’t want to include myself in every photo I took. I didn’t feel the need to ridicule people who were different, as if their very existence threatened my way of life. I wasn’t xenophobic or rabidly nationalist. I wasn’t big on labels, categories, barriers.
I preferred to look for common ground. No matter what people’s differences, I found, if you talk long enough you’ll find something you can agree on. One of my friends is quite right-wing but we are both grandparents and usually take it from there.
Over the years I’ve been drawn to philosophies which saw ego as the problem. I loved Luke Rhinehart’s Diceman novel, where the throw of a dice allows the protagonist to experience through role-play those sides of himself he normally excluded. I related to the romantic poets who sought satisfaction outside themselves – Keats with ‘negative capability’ and Wordsworth through ‘wise passiveness’ – and who saw the self as a barrier to perception which precluded a sense of ‘oneness’ with the world. I could hear Wordsworth’s ‘still, sad music of humanity’. I remember a beautiful Japanese documentary where a stream meandered in and out of a row of houses built over it, a common thread that knitted the inhabitants’ lives together. I understood Walt Whitman’s ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’ when I sat in those huge crowds at the late 60s festivals communing with something way beyond my comfort zone, music the thread that held us all enraptured as one.
In some strange way, I am still there … how to explain it … perhaps a quote from DH Lawrence will help. Ah, what the heck, let’s have the whole poem!
Oh we’ve got to trust
one another again
in some essentials.
Not the narrow little
that says: I’m for you
if you’ll be for me. –
But a bigger trust,
a trust of the sun
that does not bother
about moth and rust,
and we see it shining
in one another.
Oh don’t you trust me,
don’t burden me
with your life and affairs; don’t
into your cares.
But I think you may trust
the sun in me
that glows with just
as much glow as you see
in me, and no more.
But if it warms
your heart’s quick core
why then trust it, it forms
one faithfulness more.
And be, oh be
a sun to me,
not a weary, insistent
but a sun that shines
and goes dark, but shines
again and entwines
with the sunshine in me
till we both of us
are more glorious
and more sunny.
One faithfulness more … beautiful … I actually feel warm after reading that. It reminds me, somehow, of potlatch which was a gift-giving feast practised by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it was traditionally the primary economic system. The host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished.
Ego? Maybe, but not as we know it. Instead, there is a healthy contempt for material possessions vulnerable to Lawrence’s ‘moth and rust’. Perhaps gambling is our modern equivalent, a crazy way of telling ourselves that none of this stuff matters.
Yeah, stuff. Stuff and nonsense. When my baggage didn’t arrive on holiday, I lost sleep over it. After a couple of days I couldn’t care less. I was with my grandkids. The gift I’d wanted to give them turned out to be me.
Now that I’m back home, I’m still there. When I die, they’ll still have me. And we all depend on strangers for the well-being of our loved ones. For some reason a Sting lyric comes to mind …
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence …
… Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too.
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology –
But what might save us, me and you,
Is if the Russians love their children too.
I, me, all together in you.
And as the kids say … granddad, get over yourself …