The devil and the ego

Courtesy Slideshare.net

Courtesy Slideshare.net

We talk a lot about ego in AA, for the ego is the real enemy of any addict. Alcohol is but a symptom of our disease, the book says. The real problem with alcoholism is the “ism,” which stands for “I, self, me.” I’ve heard many people refer to their minds as “a dangerous place, because I’m not alone in there.” In fact, learning to separate those voices and identify especially the voice of your ego is one of the most valuable tools in addiction treatment and in psychology itself.

It comes as a surprise to most that our thoughts are provided by different characters in our minds. After all, our experience often is that there’s really only one “voice” in our heads, but in actuality, there are — or at least can be — many. Separating them and understanding each’s purpose is a lifetime study, but it’s remarkably rewarding, for the ability to shut down negative thoughts becomes a simple practice of ignoring that particular voice. I’m often reminded of the biography of mathematical genius John Nash by Sylvia Nasar “A Beautiful Mind.” Nash suffered from schizophrenia and was able to help himself by isolating those voices and ultimately ignoring them. Nash may have been an extreme case, but the point of those voices is very useful on the path to self actualization.

Freud was the first to identify the ego as “the part of the psyche that experiences the outside world and reacts.” The psychological world has gone far past that simple understanding. In the mid-twentieth century, psychiatrist Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA) introduced the concept of “ego states,” and the work of Don Carter has taken that even further. Carter’s “Thawing” book series helped me in my own self study. Dr. Berne’s TA work was influenced by a seminal thought of Freud’s, that the human personality is multi-faceted.

These works all influenced me, but none moreso than The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior, the 1988 book by Craig Nakken. Nakken’s little book (120 pages) is packed with original thinking and states that the personality of addicts is also multi-faceted: The Self and The Addict. The Addict very closely resembles The Little Professor ego state, but Nakken paints a remarkable picture of an inner war between The Self and The Addict. Suicide, he writes, is a defensive act of homicide wherein The Self finally kills The Addict. This is a remarkably accurate portrayal of what takes place inside the active mind of one so lost in the sea of conflicting inner thoughts that she can’t distinguish between right and wrong.

C.S. Lewis viewed the mind as multi-faceted in his remarkable “The Screwtape Letters” that described the efforts of an experienced demon attempting to teach a youngster how to best influence his “client” to turn away from thoughts of God. It’s the same internal struggle described by Nakken.

In my view, these kinds of conflicts are evident throughout history and literature, although the writers didn’t necessarily speak in this language. This goes all the way back to the Bible, which is a book about “regular” human beings and how they responded to inner voices often falsely depicted as external. There’s nothing sinister about it. It’s simply human beings attributing a “holy” sacredness to these stories that is not justified by the stories themselves. The booming voice of God shouting from the sky — like a hovering aircraft with a megaphone — is more wonderful and fits the story better than some guy who’s “only” touched the internal voice of the Creator.

Was David’s lust for Bathsheba a thought from his Self or his Ego?

Then there’s the story of Jesus in the wilderness. The story goes that “the devil appeared unto Him” and tempted him three times. Rather than assign this to some creature with red skin and a pitchfork that just happens to show up, let’s put on our inner voice glasses and take a different look at what it means to have the devil “appear unto” Jesus. Think. Here’s this fully human person whose been fasting for many weeks. He’s starving, so he says to himself, “You know, self, you could change that rock into bread and satisfy that hunger, right?” Jesus, however, recognizes that voice and quotes scripture to it.

This is exactly what psychology is trying to pin down here in the twenty-first century. We go about our lives with multi-faceted personalities, every single one of us. Nobody’s unique. We’re all just garden variety human beings with clay feet. Nobody’s perfect. If the fall of humankind was about anything, it was about the addition of this other voice into our heads and the bad behavior it brought with it. Annual sacrifices atoned for the behavior of the Jews, but what did the Christ accomplish, if not the promise of a life with authority over that voice? It doesn’t happen automatically when somebody “accepts Jesus.” The work has already been done, and knowledge of that authority is just the beginning anyway.

The religions of the book have distorted this by emphasizing the behavior (a.k.a. “sin”) instead of the cause. Bob Newhart did a wonderful take on this with his “Stop it” therapy sketch, but as any addict will tell you, emphasizing behavior does little to bring about the psychic change of recovery. That requires work, effort that I think actually belongs to the church in our postmodern world, because the solution, it turns out, is a spiritual one. We need to be talking about how we overcame those voices, sharing our stories with each other rather than preaching from some hierarchical platform that exists primarily for itself. The brilliant Clay Shirky noted a few years ago that the role of institutions is to preserve the problem for which they are the solution, but that is becoming increasingly apparent to those who’ve relied on the institutions of modernity to support the pursuit of happiness, including the church. It’s not working anymore, and to those who can reinvent themselves will go the prize of relevancy in the centuries to come.

As the incomparable Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine Jones used to say, “The devil made me do it.” There’s a deep truth to that but one that the institutional Christian church is unable to see.

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