Ego, What is it Good For?

“War (What is it Good For?)” was a famous anti-war song during the Vietnam War era. Originally written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for The Temptations, it was first a hit for Edwin Starr. It was made even for famous when it was covered by Country Joe McDonald at Woodstock in 1969 (image above).

The first verse …

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, why’all

This song and these lyrics came to mind recently after I expressed to a friend that it seems as if there’s a daily war between Ego and Soul — both internally and externally. This got me thinking about Ego and it’s purpose.

What is the Ego good for? Well not “absolutely nothing”. Ego has a specific purpose. As I posted the other day in one of my musings, the Ego wants us to be safe, not happy. It is an extension of the evolution of humans and our remarkable tenacity. It is designed to protect us. It craves form, identity, a role. I often refer to my Ego as a “herd dog” because it just needs something to do, something to protect, something to give it purpose.

It appears that the Ego has at least four specific purposes in helping us function and survive as humans.

  • Cataloging — The Ego has an enormous database and details-obsessed memory. The Ego helps our brain catalog experiences, sensory input, interactions. We quickly refer to these files in unexpected moments or dangerous (perceived or otherwise) situations. As an evolutionary tool, the Ego helped catalog what to eat, where to find food, what animals and plants are dangerous, where to find shelter — and most importantly to survival of the species, who to reproduce with. The main issue we have today with the cataloging feature of the Ego is our strong tendency to mis-remember things — that manifest in over 300 biases. We have also over-saturated and over-stimulated the cataloging function which causes our mind to go in to reactive state (another survival mechanism). In short, cataloging makes us stop thinking and only react — i.e. road rage.
  • Compartmentalization — The Ego is excellent at shutting down, walling off and otherwise protecting the core self from outside danger. Compartmentalization is a feature designed to help us survive severe trauma and protects us through horrific situations and condition. It makes us efficient and deadly fighters, productive workers and even contributes to the role of parenting. The main issue with this feature for many of us is that most compartmentalizing is unnecessary. For example, “leave work at work and home at home”. It most certainly doesn’t work that way unless in a truly high pressure, dangerous job. Yet many people build these false walls between their professional and personal lives. This split life can cause a deep disconnect from meaning; leading to depression, anxiety, addiction.
  • Comparison — All comparison is of the Ego — something to remember the next time you hear “should / shouldn’t” chatter in your head. As the only creatures with true Free Will, comparison is a necessary element for maintaining and using our power of choice. We can’t remember everything and we can’t choose everything. So we have to create a decision-making hierarchy — which runs on comparison. In addition, comparison was a necessary element for survival — for ourselves, our families and our communities. If you had more than me (food, weapons, status), the comparison drove me to achieve and acquire. Often by going to war with you! The issue with comparison today is that it is hugely manipulated by social pressure — especially in advertising and marketing. It is an extension of the “Keep up with the Jones’s” syndrome that grew out of the post-World War II expansion of the middle class and suburbia. Unless you are in a true survival situation, comparison will just make you work hard for things you really don’t need or want.
  • Competition — This one is essentially a composite of the above three but bears mentioning separately. The Ego wants to win. Its in its programming. Winning is an evolutionary trait that gives the Ego a sense of achievement and the identity of “winner”. People will say “I’m not very competitive”. If you have an Ego, you are competitive — just in different ways. Competition permeates all hierarchal systems — which pretty much includes every living thing. The hierarchy creates status, opportunities for power and wealth, tribal dominance and clear difference between “winners” and “losers”. As a libertarian-in-all-things and a free speech, free market advocate, I have no issue with competition. I do have an issue with the Ego’s tendency to use competition to hurt others, mis-use authority and fuel a if-you-are-not-cheating-you-are-not-trying culture in business and sports. My reminder to myself is: compete for what matters.

Ultimately, our Ego and Soul are intended to live in harmony. One needs the other. The Ego is needed for survival and the Soul is needed for happiness.But for similar reasons as to why we have a civilian commander-in-chief, the Ego makes a great employee but a terrible boss (unless you are in an actual life-threatening situation, then let the Ego do it’s thing so you don’t die!).

 

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