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.

9 thoughts on “How fragile our egos can be (even for a successful university professor).

  1. I am not a participant or believer in “organized religion”. I am a believer in sorting out some sort of spiritual faith during one’s lifetime. Your anecdote could be example of one of the main reasons. To accept that, even if a fellow human disapproves of your life philosophies or life work, there is a ? higher or different state of being within which we are all our perfect selves and dwell within love without threat. Many religions serve this up neatly on a platter, although the platter is also loaded up with a clear set of rules and threats. This seems to make the doctrine easier to swallow for many people. Perhaps the threat of violence is equated with the strength required to survive? Times have changed. The subconsciousness ruled by primal man has not. I hope it catches up, eventually. Until then, I will try to do right unto others, and not sweat the small stuff.

    1. The comments I make in my blog have as much if not more to do with inbuilt psychological and neurological realities that we are not conscious about. They are fundamental to human behaviour and underpin virtually all behaviour. There is an interesting program on the brain that aired on the CBC recently in two episodes. It tracked the most up-to-date information we have on the brain and our subconscious lives. The more neurobiology in the works of the likes of Robert Sapolski at Stanford University and many others delves into the workings of the human brain and how we explain our behaviour to ourselves and to others via cultural institutions, the more we find that free choice is an illusion. That, combined with the works of Norbert Elias, Irving Goffman and many others in sociology and we begin to get a picture that even the idea of a human individual is a myth. I know that sounds outrageous, but those are the results of the research. That said, we could not live in the world as it exists, I expect, with the full knowledge of what makes us up as human beings. Better have a strong dose of repression than come face to face with the realities of existence for a species like ours.

      1. I participated in a course offered through Coursera and Stanford about a year ago. The course drew comparison between the most recent model of the brain and brain function, and commonalities within Tibetan Buddhist doctrine. Impermanence and the absence of an actual “self” we’re just a few of the ideas presented. The lectures also touched on benefits of meditation and the advantages of recognizing, accepting, and then dismissing the thought patterns that have somehow earned a dominant voice within us. It was, for me, fascinating. I have lived with anxiety my entire life. I am a real worrier. The course, primarily the lectures on brain function, changed my life. Through meditative practice and sheer conscious effort. Insightful understanding of how our minds function, in times of both relaxed and stressed states, has been instrumental for me in overcoming not only worry, but also negative emotions such as fear and self hate. I enjoy your blog, Roger. The dialogues you initiate with your writing are thought provoking. Any information that leads us closer to understanding and accepting one another is really a true gift!

      2. Thank you, Gillian. I appreciate that very much. There is one Stanford prof by the name of Robert Sapolski who did a lot a research in Africa on stress in baboons. I have a copy of the documentary based on his work. I’m sure it’s available online too. I used to show it to my classes every year because it showed clearly how stress in baboons depending on their status in the troop can be an analog for stress in bureaucrats working in Whitehall (Britain’s national government bureaucratic headquarters). It seems the more control we have over our lives at work the less stress we have! Gee, I think I can vouch for that firsthand! I love Sapolski. I watched a whole series of videos on his lectures at Stanford. Very informative.

  2. Roger, I read and re-read this phrase, “how we explain our behaviour to ourselves and to others via cultural institutions” and don’t understand what you are saying. Are you able to elaborate on this giving some examples? Perhaps then, I will grasp what is being said here. What do you mean by “via cultural institutions”? Thanks in advance.

  3. Roger, I don’t understand this phrase, “how we explain our behaviour to ourselves and to others via cultural institutions.” Could you please give us a few examples of what you mean here? Do you mean “justify” our bad behaviour, for example? The older I get, the less I feel it beneficial to myself or to others to explain my behaviour. If I behave a certain way and later regret that behaviour, I apologize to the person or people involved. If I behave in a way that I do not believe requires an apology, I do not apologize, even if my behaviour may have upset another person or people (such as stating my belief about something that is contrary to the belief (beliefs) of others). The older I become, the less important I think it is for my to spout off about things. However, when it comes to writing a letter to a newspaper editor on a topic of general interest or concern to readers, as you know, I will express my thoughts, as I seem to have been given the ability to write reasonably good letters, while it seems not everyone has that ability to the degree that I do.

    Am I on the right track with what you are referring to in your reply to Gillian’s comment?

    1. Well, an institution is what Veblen calls a “crystallized habit of thought or of life.” By that he means that we develop certain ways of behaving as individuals and if enough people adopt those behaviours and make them a part of their lives, we call those institutions. So when you say that if a certain behaviour of yours might require an apology, you’re adopting a means (apologizing) which is widespread in our world (an institution) that is used to mediate relations between ourselves or restore them in some cases. Apologizing is an institution that we all take for granted as a way of dealing with our discomforts around discord.

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