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September 4, 2018

Farrin Foster on the power of ego

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Illustration: Kate Gagliardi

I’ve always found shows like House of Cards and characters like Othello’s Iago a little bewildering.

It seems strange that writers who are really good (see: Shakespeare. Yeah.) would create these characters whose motivations run no deeper than a throwaway phrase. Somehow, “the pursuit of power” was enough to make Iago want to set-up Othello to kill his partner, and for Kevin Spacey’s character (who I’m sure had a name) to push the journalist he was having sex with under a train.

(Let’s just pause to mention that both of these scenarios include men killing women, who are – of course – mostly considered, even by “really good” writers, to be entirely dispensable in service of a scintillating plotline.)

It will come as no surprise to anyone at all, but I have never considered murdering anyone just so I could claim a little more authority. All the Machiavellian machinations of fiction seemed so entirely un-relatable to me, until very recently, when someone suggested that power is just an expression of ego.

Ego is something I have. And sometimes it pushes me to do dumb things like pursue arguments that I know are probably wrong, just because I want the other person to lose. I want them to submit, to bend to my authority.

A destructive and often futile compulsion, ego makes us feel entitled to force our own way of thinking and being onto others. That’s probably what Shakespeare has been trying to tell me (not personally though, obviously), but I’ve just been too dumb to actually understand.

My late-life-stage, Johnny-First-Time power revelation was immediately followed by a whole lot of boring, self-centred introspection about the best ways to rid myself of my ego. These attempts, though, were universally thwarted by a rapid unmooring of my confidence that would follow immediately and assuredly behind them.

Without my ego, I became over-exposed to the bruising reality of other peoples’ opinions. Hair too short. Personality too intimidating. Vocabulary too pretentious, but, somehow – simultaneously – far too dominated by swearing. Lifestyle not maternal enough. Drink too much, eat too much, talk too loud. Probably shouldn’t wear those pants given your, you know, thighs. Etc.

Perhaps for some people – mostly those who fit our grossly pre-determined model of what a human should be (read: male, white, tall, straight, blah, blah) – ego can be put aside. Society will hold them together, will deliver them safely from one challenge to the next with a barrage of reassuring messages that consciously and subconsciously affirm their worth.

But for the rest of us, to advance through life while battered with the opposite – a confounding and daily array of niggling attacks on our value – the ego is a survival tactic. Sometimes I do misuse it to make a point that doesn’t need to be made, but, mostly, I hold to it for protection – employing it to deflect all the things that tell me the world is not mine to move within.

For the special few – Iago and Kevin Spacey among them – it’s a choice to follow ego’s more base elements, to hoist themselves into positions of power far beyond what is necessary. For all else it is not a choice at all – ego is the only power we have the chance to experience.

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