This is the fifth episode of a series on ego death. Read episode one, two, three and four.
We’ve looked at the first component of ego death, “ego”. Now, I want to explore the second, and, I suppose, the concept as a whole. What does it mean for the ego to die? Is it good, bad, desirable, something to avoid? And how do different cultures and ideologies view the death of the ego? All that good stuff.
But before I get into those questions I think it’s worth considering the opposite of death; birth. Perhaps it’ll help us further understand what “ego” is, and what the consequences are when it dies.
The Wikipedia page for ”birth” says “Birth, also known as parturition, is the act or process of bearing or bringing forth offspring.” That makes sense for a physical entity that comes into being. But the ego is a psychological construct. So when does it come into being?
The first thought that comes to mind is that it is the body that gives birth to the mind. We are an organised physical being before we become an organised psychological being. We have to physically exist to psychologically exist. That’s self-evident. But at what point exactly is the ego is born?
Is the ego born as soon as we come out of the womb? As soon as we have desires and needs and fears? Is the ego born as soon as we attain self-consciousness about our desires and needs and fears? Does the ego come into being alongside our personality? Does it flower as our sense of self flourishes?
In Freudian terms, the ego is a sense maker and a mediator between our ideals and immediate desires. To perform either of those tasks—to make sense of the world, ourselves and our place within it, and to manage opposing drives—implies a level of maturity. So in the Freudian worldview, we could say that the ego is born at the moment we achieve a consciousness regarding our selves. That’s because our “self” is a consequence of the tensions within; what we want now and in the future, consciously and unconsciously, implicitly and explicitly. This is what makes up the ego.
Actually, that view exists outside the sandbox of Freud. I equate ego with self-concept, and I find it hard to argue that babies have a self-concept. I mean, they have something, but I think it’s a stretch to call it an ego, a personality, or a self-concept. At least for the first few months of their existence.
Yet here I go, contradicting myself again: Thinking about this, I’m realising that the ego could come before we are able to communicate our sense of self, to ourselves and others. I mean, as a baby grows, it develops mannerisms and quirks. Are these things not evidence of the presence of an ego? Surely, an ego can be present before our ability to communicate is?
This idea of ego, of a psychological construct being coupled with physical existence, not communicative capacity, is the essence of the argument of those who argue against abortion. They’re saying aborting a foetus is murder. And they’re saying that because they believe a foetus is a person, a physical entity with a psychological ego or organisation.
Personally, I’m not opposed to abortion. I can see where those who do oppose it are coming from, but I don’t agree. But how we decide what the cutoff point for its practice is is something I’m unsure about. But there’s a potentially interesting way to figure it out.
If we recognise that physical existence is a prerequisite to psychological existence, then we could use the development of a foetus’ brain as a way to determine what constitutes a “being” and what doesn’t. And after some quick digging, it seems that a foetus’ brain develops rapidly at the 24-26 week mark. This seems to coincide with abortion laws and limitations around the world, most of which prohibit abortion after this period (except in exceptional circumstances).
So we have a variety of options for when the ego is birthed. Ego birth could occur once foetal development has passed a certain stage. It could occur once we begun to have needs and desires and fears, but while we’re still unable to communicate them. Or it could occur alongside our ability to communicate about ourselves or form a narrative around our existence.
I opt for the second—ego birth occurs as soon as we have needs and fears, but while we’re still unable to communicate them.