In “The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego” I offered a model that helps us track individual identity through a gauntlet of developmental challenges that both shape the ego and continue to influence it throughout the lifespan by way of deep patterns called archetypes. These archetypes belong to larger clusters that correspond to the formative phases of birth (the perinatal cluster), early childhood (the developmental cluster), and a critical passage that is unlocked only to the degree that these earlier challenges were relatively successful, opening into an experience of the grounding mystery of being itself (esoteric cluster).
It is at this threshold, in fact, where ego (identity) is surrendered to soul (communion), that theism as a paradigm of religion gives way to post-theism. Indeed, if we can better understand how it goes (or gets blocked) for the ego, we will have in hand a key insight into the evolutionary purpose (and common pathologies) of theism as well. This is because theism and ego are coeval (of the same age and equal duration). How it goes with ego, so it goes with theism – and vice versa. In this post I will explore the healthy and dysfunctional forms of both.
Before I begin, however, perhaps that last statement – about ego and theism developing together – needs to be explained. The essential idea is that ego, as the executive center of the personality, has its counterpart in the deity who is executive-in-charge of the tribe and its world. “Tribe” is here playing a mediating role, shaping the individual’s identity as “one of us” according to the moral ideal represented in the patron deity. At this stage (in theism) the game is all about clear roles and rule-bound relationships, as the arena where the social constructs of identity, membership, and obligation are set in place.
The patron deity serves a dual function as the sovereign authority behind the tribe’s moral code, and as the focus of worship and aspiration in its members. In obeying their god, individuals are cooperating for the common good, while in glorifying the divine virtues of grace, mercy, compassion, patience, wisdom, forgiveness (etc.) – and seeking all the while to be like the deity in these ways – they are gradually growing toward that ideal. Along the way, what had been addressed as outside the self (i.e., the patron deity) is slowly internalized, as it were, until the individual is able to drop the identifier of “me and mine” altogether and simply be one with everything.
It happens, and all too frequently, that ego development gets hung up (or blocked), which, if the hang-up is fairly widespread across the tribe, can have a distortion-effect on the deity as represented in art, story, theory and doctrine. As a people regress, so does their patron deity. Just as in positive development the deity contains dormant or newborn virtues of a morally advanced community, when its official custodians (the priests and theologians) slip or get pulled into degenerate vices such as dogmatism, bigotry, vengeance and cruelty, the deity undergoes a similar makeover and soon the tribe as a whole falls into its gravity.
So what is a healthy ego and deity, and what are their contrasting pathologies? First we should recall that ego-formation comes about, initially at least, through a process of restraint-and-redirection, as the impulsive drives and animal urgencies of the body are trained into socially appropriate behavior. Of course, the underlying urgency of biology and instinct doesn’t just stop doing what nature requires, which means that ego is first gained and thereafter suspended just above the borderline separating the personality from this primordial (deeper, darker) animality.
Added to this responsibility of managing the animal impulses of the body – at least the small percentage of milder inclinations that can be controlled – is the task of establishing a center in the personality where moods can be kept in balance. As distinct from urges and impulses, moods are global and sustained internal states that work to match an organism to its environment and motivate behavior that is adaptive to the challenge at hand. Because circumstances change and new challenges are always presenting themselves, particularly in the social arena where ego is at home, the personality needs to adjust quickly.
A third factor of ego strength is its ability to hold the personality together as a whole. Various and sometimes divergent streams of affect (feeling), motivation, thought, and disposition need to be supervised, coordinated, or reconciled for the sake of maintaining a unified self. There are times when a certain stream comes close to breaching the ego’s hold, which, if successful, could result in guilt, embarrassment, or personal injury. As the executive center, ego serves the important function of self-integrity.
In summary, then, healthy ego development – and let’s remember that this will be true of the divine ego of the patron deity as well – is demonstrated in a stable, balanced, and unified identity. The personality is kept from falling through the floor into animal urgency, it is able to maintain a center of emotional composure, and it is held together under a governing director who monitors all things “me and mine” (our Captain Ego). From this stable, balanced, and unified platform, an individual is capable of leaping out into a larger reality, transcend the self entirely, and consciously join the present communion of all things – which is the mystical experience of spirituality.
Against this profile of healthy identity we can more easily describe the different types of pathology that afflict both ego and the patron deity.
You should probably know that I am deeply skeptical over the modern confidence in naming and classifying so-called mental disorders. Biological psychiatry and diagnostic psychotherapy have invented a complicated web of clinical disorders without a clear definition of mental order. Critics of this enterprise – and it is a wonderful conspiracy of inventors, drug manufacturers, and insurance companies, served by a cadre of well-compensated physicians and therapists – are highly doubtful that health and suffering can be so cleanly divided into “normal” and “abnormal.”
With that said, my description of pathology in the ego and theism’s deity is not intended to deny the legitimate cases where something is really, and deeply, wrong with the brain (in ego’s case). While I have chosen the names of a few outstanding and “popular” pathologies for my purpose, I readily concede that there are times when biology has “gone wrong” and a patient needs medical (drug and/or surgical) intervention. But such cases are much rarer than is commonly believed, which is part of the delusion that the conspiracy is intent on perpetuating.So here we go. When the boundary separating ego from the lower animal urgencies is not very strong, the personality is not able to control the border and keep spontaneous impulses in check. Consequently the identity system will unpredictably collapse and be overtaken by sudden urges or reactions, making the person behave in socially inappropriate ways that end up damaging relationships. Do you know anyone like this?
What I’m calling borderline personality, then, is not so much a clinical disorder as an extreme variance in identity formation where ego strength is insufficient to keep the personality above the surface of animal urgencies. Individuals who lack a stable ego often suffer from loneliness from having offended their former friends, and a chronic restlessness in never knowing when the floor might fall out from beneath them.
What happens when the missing part of ego strength is the center that would otherwise hold a person’s moods in balance? Wide and erratic swings, and not only of the familiar “manic” to “depressive” poles. Wild fluctuations in mood inevitably land the individual in situations where the body’s internal state is completely incompatible with his or her present circumstances. Because moods are more global and enduring than the momentary feeling responses that naturally occur in the course of normal experience, a bipolar person can be so totally possessed by a mood that he or she is insensitive to the surrounding cues.
The bipolar personality is also socially disruptive, but in a different way from the borderline personality. While the borderline issue puts everyone on the edge of not knowing when the next outburst or collapse is going to happen, bipolarity trains those around the individual to withhold confidences and responsibilities from him or her out of concern that they won’t be followed through to completion. Do you know anyone like that?
Finally, when ego strength is unable to hold the personality together as a unified system, the numerous undercurrents of identity, attitude, motivation and behavior that might normally be allowed expression by Captain Ego in appropriate social environments and situations, can simply and unexpectedly “show up.” Roberto Assagioli, the Italian founder of psychosynthesis – stressing the necessary work of constructing a healthy self, as opposed to Freud’s strategy of taking apart the sick self with psychoanalysis – referred to these relatively self-contained minor identities within the dominant personality as “subpersonalities.” They are normal components in the normally complex personality system.
But when the ego is too weak to maintain a unified self, the personality “dissociates,” giving way to any one or a number of these subpersonalities. Observers of this phenomenon are often perplexed at how so-and-so is suddenly “an entirely different person” than he or she was just moments before. This isn’t about impulses breaking through the floor, but rather coherent substreams of alter-identity that take over in a social situation.
(At one point, this was named “multiple personality disorder” by psychiatry, but it later got relabeled as “dissociative identity disorder.” I’m suggesting that it is far more normal (or better, common) than the clinical designation will admit.)
Now that we have a model of ego strength before us, along with an understanding of the major pathologies that compromise it, I will return to my original suggestion. Just as there is a developmental partnership between the healthy ego and its patron deity, where the external causality and higher virtues represented in the deity are gradually internalized by the caring and self-responsible ego, so we should expect to find instances where ego pathology (borderline, bipolar, dissociative) is reflected in depictions of God – for example as temperamental, capricious, and internally divided (think of the subpersonalities of Yahweh in the Bible as threatening and wrathful, or as compassionate and forgiving).
Do you know a religion like that?
2 thoughts on “Do You Know Anyone Like That?”
John, all I can say is wow and I wish I could take part in the discussion but just can’t, for several reasons. However, after years working in psych units, mainly with major disorders I have to agree with you on the labeling……not that I think I am on your level of correlating religion and mental disorders. Fascinating piece, to say the least! Thanks Ellen
Ellen, thank you for the affirmation. I love it when we have your voice in the Circle! Join us again soon!