Defining the problem
27 March 1964. “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” was a front-page splash in The New York Times. The article described how for more than half an hour “respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens (a New York City borough) watched a killer stalk and stab” 28-year-old Kitty Genovese. “I didn’t want to get involved” – a neighbor had reportedly admitted to the police during the investigation.
The article gained much traction, and the incident became the emblem of urban apathy in America. Nonetheless, beyond the fleeting poignancy that the news evoked, life went about as usual for most Americans. But not for Kitty’s brother 16-year-old Bill Genovese.
When he was 19, Bill readily enlisted in the Marines to fight in the Vietnam War. While his friends saw America’s intervention in Vietnam as tragic and schemed to dodge the draft, for Bill that kind of evasion smacked of the same apathy that shadowed his sister’s murder. He didn’t want to be like those people who did nothing when Kitty was crying for help.
Bill went to Vietnam, was injured on the war front, and lost both his legs.
Calling Bill an egomaniac would be downright absurd. Notwithstanding, it was his ego that pushed him – covertly – into a war that left him physically challenged.
The ego Svengalied undisguised, however, on the American inventor Edwin Land, which makes his story a better starting point to understand the subtleties of its working.
Edwin Land, best known for co-founding Polaroid Corporation, invented the instant camera in 1948, following which his company took off. For three decades Polaroid ruled the world of photography. In 1980, Sony founder Akio Morita confided in Land that the camera niche seemed to be on the cusp of digitalization; he expressed interest in collaborating on an electronic camera. The idea was lost on Land, who reasoned that customers would always want print, and that the quality of digital pics could never match those of chemically processed ones.
As it turned out, Land was wrong. But ironically, even as Polaroid Corporation suffered in the emerging digital market, Land – like a typical egomaniac – was unwilling to come around. Rather, he surrounded himself with devout followers who agreed with him. Eventually, the mounting losses forced the Polaroid board to oust Land from the very company that he had co-founded.
As paradoxical as it sounds, the Ego – ahankara in Sanskrit –alsoplays a positive indispensable role in our lives. It gives us our identities. Under the ego’s influence, I see myself as an Indian, a monk, a disciple, a son, and so on. And once I know who I am, I also know what I should be doing. In other words, our identities define our actions. As an Indian, I cast my votes; as a monk, I strive to serve society selflessly; as a disciple, I follow the discipline set forth by my guru; and as a son, I regularly call up my parents to check on their wellbeing. Waking up every morning I don’t find myself in limbo, endlessly wondering how I should spend the day. My identities bring to mind my responsibilities – and I am out and about.
The ego gets toxic, however, when it endlessly defends identities that it has given. And that’s exactly what happened with Edwin Land.
Land saw himself as a physicist and a chemist, and embracing the digital market meant forgoing those identities. His ego was unwilling and defensive, which precipitated his downfall.
The defense team of the ego, or the ahankar, has two players: mann and buddhi. Mann, often translated as the Mind, is the emotional part of our psyche. And Buddhi, often translated as the Intelligence, is the rational part. The mann, buddhi and ahankar together form our sukshma sharir, our invisible-self, our psyche. (Interestingly, even according to modern science our psyche consists of 3 selves – the emotional self, the rational self, and the egoistic self.)
The mind acts as the ego’s hatchet man. Any information coming in from any of the senses that threatens any identity given by the ego, the mind dismisses. That rejection it expresses through negative feelings like fear, anger, disgust, melancholy, or annoyance. Edwin Land’s mind, for example, had picked annoyance: when Akio Morita expressed that the wave of the future could be digital, a piece of information that threatened Land’s identity of being a physicist and a chemist, Land was very likely annoyed.
Intelligence is the mind’s champion. The feeling that the mind generates, the intelligence rationalizes. When Land was annoyed, his intelligence reasoned why the idea of a digital-takeover was indeed irksome: people would always want printed photos, and the quality of digital photography would always be substandard.
Coming back to the murder story of Kitty Genovese, the apathy surrounding her slaying had hit hard on Bill. He wanted to be empathetic; that was to be his new identity. Empathizing with the American cause in Vietnam, therefore, became his calling. And while defending that identity of being empathetic, his ego ignored the naysayers of the Vietnam war, like Land’s ignored Morita’s foresight. Bill’s case-study warns how the ego’s tendency to defend identities can be a detriment even with virtues like empathy.
Interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita also opens with the warrior Arjuna – his ego rather – trying to defend the identity of being empathetic. Unlike Bill Genovese, however, Arjuna was reluctant to fight; His empathy was directed towards his enemies, the Kauravas.
The Kauravas and the Pandavas, though cousins, were poised against each other on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The lead-up to this war is described in the epic Mahabharatha. In essence, the Kauravas – one hundred brothers headed by Duryodhana – had usurped the throne of the Pandava brothers – Yudhishtira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Consequently, the citizens had come under the sinister rule of Duryodhana, a megalomaniac. The Pandavas, after failed attempts for a peaceful settlement, were rightfully waging a war to reclaim their kingdom – not for themselves, but for dharma to prevail.
At the brink of war, however, Arjuna threw up his hands. He turned to his charioteer Lord Sri Krishna:
My dear Krishna, seeing my friends and relatives present before me in such a fighting spirit, I feel the limbs of my body quivering and my mouth drying up… I do not see how any good can come from killing my kinsmen in this battle…why should I wish to kill them, even though they might otherwise kill me? (Bhagavad Gita 1.29,31,34)
Arjuna had been seeing himself as empathetic, and the specter of war threatened that identity. His ego entered the defense-mode, and so the mind rushed-in with negative feelings of depression, as Arjuna’s words reflect.
Next, Arjuna’s intelligence backed-up those feelings with rationalizations; the first chapter of the Gita enlists – verse after verse – the reasons that he gives favoring evasion of war.
Enter the second chapter, and Sri Krishna rubbishes those feelings and justifications. He doesn’t mince any words:
Do not yield to this degrading impotence. It does not become you. Give up such petty weakness of heart and arise, O chastiser of the enemy. (Bhagavad Gita 2.3)
Sri Krishna didn’t stop at this, for he knew a mere pep-talk would fall short. For Arjuna’s crisis ran deep – it was rooted in the ego.
When the ego is battling to defend an identity, you experience stress and anxiety; when it loses, you are either slipping into depression or soaring into a rage; and when it wins, you get arrogant. This battle-within gets waged every single day, every-now-and-then. For instance, if you identify yourself as being good-looking, and the evening-selfie that you posted on Instagram is starving for likes even late in the night, you will very likely go to bed anxiety-ridden and stressed-out. Waking up in the morning, if you find it still famished, you will be either depressed, or angry at your friends, at the world, or perhaps at yourself.
On the other hand, if your post is brimming with likes by morning, you will likely get arrogant – or at least your identity of being good-looking will get reinforced. There would be little reason to celebrate though, because the next time you post your selfie on Instagram – with that heightened conviction about your good-looks – your experience is going to be more intense: more stressful to begin with, and then, either more painful or more boastful. When the ego wins a battle, prepare for the war that’s going to follow; and again if it wins, prepare for a bigger war. And the more wars it wins, the more excruciating will be the defeat that eventually follows.
These emotions – stress, anxiety, anger, depression, and arrogance – are ubiquitous in our times, only because people’s egos are busy defending identities all day long.
If only all of us knew the subtle art of letting-go!