How fragile our egos can be (even for a successful university professor).

This is the fourth post relating to the Ernest Becker Legacy conference held at SFU in early October. However,this last post relates only tangentially to the conference and more to a situation that arose after the opening talk by Sheldon Solomon on Friday evening, October 2nd.

After Solomon’s talk there was time to mingle and have a glass of wine. There were a number of familiar faces in the crowd, some from my time as a student and instructor at SFU during the 1970s and early 80s, some from the Ernest Becker Foundation and some conference attendees were my former students or acquaintances. One couple that stood out for me was a long retired professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU and his wife. I hadn’t seen him in ages, but I recognized him immediately. I’ll leave his name out of this because it’s irrelevant and I would not want to embarrass him in the slightest. I remember taking one of his course and found him to be a competent enough teacher. He produced a number of monographs and I expect his research was much more important to him than his teaching, but that’s pure speculation on my part. I certainly have the utmost respect for him.

In any case, we soon found ourselves chatting over a glass of wine. I doubt if he remembered me although he said he did. It’s true that I was in the department for many years as an undergrad then as a grad student so it’s possible he did remember me. In any case, this conference was about Becker and I expected he wanted to talk to me about Becker’s work at SFU or about his own work. He didn’t. In fact, he seemed anxious for someone to listen to his complaint about Becker, to hear his story of how nasty a character Becker really was. I found this astounding because this conference was really a Becker love-in and not essentially a critical venue with regard to Becker’s work. Why would this esteemed, highly regarded professor, with a good publishing record of his own, bother to come to a conference to listen to nice things being said about a person he loathed?

As he recalled the story, it turns out that in the early 1970s when Becker was still active doing research and what not, he was keen on having as much time as possible to engage in study and writing. He was interested in getting some relief from teaching. This professor to which I’ve been referring was in some kind of administrative position at the time and Becker approached him with his plan for a reduced teaching load. Apparently that meeting did not go well and Becker, according to this professor, was rude and belligerent, to the point where the professor’s ego was severely threatened. He took this perceived attack on his ego very personally.

The reason I bring this up is not to pass judgment on Becker or on the professor in question. It’s to point out how long a slight to the ego can affect us, how long we can carry it around and allow it to sour our thoughts. I’m talking about a period of at least 40 years between when this professor felt slighted by Becker and his recounting it to me (although any willing ear would have done) at a conference dedicated to Becker’s legacy as if it had all happened just last week. Why?

Well, for one explanation we can turn to Becker’s own work. In Escape from Evil, Becker makes it clear that any attack on our ego can mean that we fail to qualify for immortality, that somehow we are unworthy of eternal life. An attack on our individual egos or on our collective egos as embedded in our social and cultural institutions can result in diminishment and reduced qualification for the meaning in life we so desperately seek. This is not doing Becker’s argument justice, so I would suggest reading Becker yourself to get the full story if you wish.

However, the power of an attack on the ego can be devastating, as I think I illustrated here especially if it’s left unresolved. Furthermore, I don’t think that this situation is idiosyncratic. The kind of reaction I’ve illustrated here to being threatened resides deep in our unconscious minds and leaves us unsettled, cautious and wary, as individuals and as societies. In other posts on this blog I’ve addressed the issue of how we defend our egos by linguistic means, by the use of the indefinite ‘you’. I’ll be writing more about the ‘indefinite you’ again soon.