Dear Donagh,

…. Is the ego always a loner?  The reason I'm asking is because I know a guy who is the most selfish [person] I've ever met, but he's always hanging around with other people even when they don’t want him.   I'm interested in this and I've read all the questions and answers on ego that you’ve posted on this site.  I got the impression from them that the ego is about being self-centred, so youd expect an ego sort of person to have no interest in other people and to be always on their own.  Can you say something about this?  Thanks.  Brian.

Dear Brian,

No, there’s also the group ego, which is usually more malignant than the single ego.  Even people who are quite reasonable and kind as individuals can be narrow and combative when they feel that their group is under attack.  That can be any kind of group – their family, their neighbourhood, their country… even the football team they support. 

The group ego is just as interesting (and just as important) to study as the individual ego.  It’s not as if these are two separate ‘entities’, both called ego; rather they are aspects of the self, and it is important not to lose sight of either.  It would make sense to say that the individual ego hides itself inside the group ego; in extreme cases it can even substitute the group ego for itself.  This kind of group identity is the ego’s caricature of community.  It is important not to become theoretical here; just observe what happens in experience.  Make a list of examples from your own experience and observation. 

Let’s think of a couple of examples.  There’s an impoverished theology that sees the Church only as an organisation.  It goes like this: like all organisations the Church has rules; if you don’t want to keep the rules, you don’t have to stay in it; but if you want to stay, you had better keep the rules.  Even a golf club, I heard a preacher say, has rules…. That was the clue, for anyone who was still awake.  His theology of the Church – ecclesiology, we call it – would see no essential difference between the Church and a golf club.  But the Church is first and foremost a community, and its law is the law of love.  If you have no love, if your life is not one of self-giving, it doesn’t matter how many rules you keep.  That preacher, as an individual ego, was a pleasant and interesting person.  His ecclesiology brought out the worst in him; it was nothing but his group ego. 

That was a mild version.  But it has all been written in large letters throughout history: religious bigotry and persecution and wars, violent nationalism, tribalism… and in our own day, Islamic terrorism.  It is about taking one’s own ego-boundaries and extending them to include one’s own kind, but to exclude all others.  The ‘them vs me’ becomes ‘them vs us.’ 

Group egoism is a greater danger than individual egoism.  It looks more respectable, more objective, more validated, because of numbers; and so it can trap people for longer, even forever.  Worse still, since the group ego is a bigger beast than the individual ego and can wield more power, it can become a potent force for evil in the world. 

The search for identity, for the illusory ‘us’, isn't always that kind of brash assertiveness.  It can also be small-scale, subtle, and emotional.  For example, someone is depressed, but instead of facing it, they try to pull other people down with them into their own emotional swamp.  They want company there, and I've seen people who show signs of being addicted to this.  I've seen it a few time in someone who was doing counselling work without having being trained as a counsellor.  It is an emotional violation of the other – a kind of seduction.  The individual ego then flatters itself by thinking it is doing great work, touching ‘raw reality’ in other people, drawing tears from them; but secretly it is wallowing in the emotional free-for-all that follows.  This is lethal stuff.  To help someone, you have to be well aware of the workings of your own ego, especially the ways in which it keeps looking for company.   

As I say, Brian, make your own list from your own experience and observation.  It may come in handy when you are trying to cope with your friend the [person].


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