It’s likely most of us suffer from it, to lesser or greater degrees. Soon after birth, the ego discovers its individuality and realizes that separation can be a threat to its survival. If I am not considered special, the ego decides, I may not be fed, taken care of, and loved. First the individual ego fears the rejection of his parents, then later learns to extend this fear into the wider world of siblings, teachers, coaches, peers, and employers. No one wants to be cast aside and forgotten.
So the ego searches for specialness. It decides, if I am attractive enough, I will be loved. If I am smarter than my peers, I will never fail. If I am fast enough, I will always win. And in that striving for specialness, angst sets in. What will happen if I am no longer considered beautiful? Will I no longer be loved and cherished? What if someone smarter than me comes along? Will I be rejected? Overlooked in favor of another? What will happen if I lose this race? Will I no longer be a winner?
You cannot fault the individual ego who as a young child hears the words, “You are so cute” by his parents and translates this to, “I am cute, therefore I am loved and wanted.” Soon after birth, the child begins to learn the skills admired by her world, discovering in the process that accolades, hugs, and smiles accompany her feats of mental and physical acuity. She will likely hold onto these words and decide as an adolescent that the words “You’re smoking hot” translate to being worthy of love by another. If she doesn’t hear them, her self-worth may be severely questioned, as the insecure ego has learned to strive for specialness. And so this extends to all areas of life for each individual who grows in a world fixated on specialness. Each of us becoming, in the process, unconsciously obsessed with what separates us from each other, instead of what unites us.
We lose, in this process of striving for a specialness that separates us from each other, both inner and outer joy. Separation is the opposite to unity, and the constant striving for this separation from each other pulls us apart from what unites us. This encompasses the inner and outer unity, as there can never be contentment if there is a constant struggle for separation. Inner peace arrives only when the ego learns to exist in a state of balance with the body, mind, and heart-centered soul. It exists only when there is the realization that striving for the outer ideals created by the world around it are false ideals. That in fact no one individual can truly be more special than another. Instead, the individual must realize that this striving only creates separation. Separation from the true self.
I have been thinking about this pervasive syndrome of specialness obsession that many of us get pulled into early on it life. God knows I did. My need to be accepted by my parents led me to swallow my words and emotions and bury my true identity. By the time I reached adolescence, I discovered that being different meant rejection by my peers, and so I struggled to stand out in more accepted ways. Although I won awards for academic and athletic excellence, as well as the affections of handsome boys who didn’t know my past, I existed inside a sea of inner turmoil. True connection with myself only became achievable later in my adult life after I began to let the outer ideals slip away.
Last week my son tried out for the school’s baseball team and didn’t make it. He took the rejection by the coach hard, at first. And, one of the comments he made was, “what will people think of me now?” He is in the eight grade. That stage in life when the ego is acutely fixated on identity. It is heartbreaking to hear these words come out of the mouth of your son, knowing the struggle for identity that he is going through. Yet, it is also an opportunity to teach and learn. To grow and overcome. To help discover that the perceived rejection of the outer is really just a superficial interpretation. The self secure in its identity will realize that there is no true rejection or separation.
Yet this process can take time. It can take much learning, or rather unlearning, to discover that the outer ideals so cherished by a culture premised upon ranking will eventually topple. It will create inner and outer wars, as we have seen over and over again. We are in the midst of this right now. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and religious discrimination have raised their fearful heads in a quest for dominance. On our thrones of leadership we have placed false demigods who thrive upon the ego’s “I am special” syndrome.
But, in the midst of the ego’s struggle with fear and supremacy, there are those shining voices of truth singing songs of unity. Some of them have not yet reached the age of adulthood. I am thinking in particular of Greta Thunberg, who at the age of 16 has been nominated for the Noble Peace Price. When she was 15, Greta began protesting outside of Sweden’s parliament in an effort to inspire a more radical response to climate change. “I do not care about being popular,” she fearlessly declares when she speaks in front of a panel of rule makers. She lives through her heart supported by, and not ruled by, the strength of her ego. You cannot help but feel the power of her words. Never having, perhaps, caught the “I need to be special” syndrome, Greta shines in the light of a universal truth as she seeks to bring awareness to a global crisis that affects not just her, but all life on Earth. She speaks of unity and not division and has no care for whether she is liked. Yet, through doing this, she epitomizes true greatness.
During my conversations with my son over the weekend, we discussed the difference between striving for individual greatness driven by the ego’s quest for specialness vs. the larger calling of the soul ruled by the heart. Although he enjoys playing the sport of baseball, my son does not feel that a life centered around an ego-centric competition is for him. He has no intention of playing professional baseball. Instead, he realizes that he has his own unique strengths, which may lead him down a path that is not so much about letting the ego shine, but allowing the truth of the soul to shine. It gives me hope, just as it does seeing Greta standing sure and true in her convictions to inspire a better, cleaner world for us all.