The most insidious illusions are the ones that keep us in the prison of their parameters.
Though at first the concept of an ideal image that would guide us toward being what we most want to be would seem a helpful inner directive, the media world has contaminated the personal construction by the endless repetition of what is deemed culturally desirable. Industries are built on helping people match external images of success. Many individual traits that add color to the spectrum of being are excluded. Whole segments of the population are left out as not rich enough, not young enough, not a particular kind of attractive. Watching my colleagues age with me over thirty years, I look back and think how unformed they looked so long ago, how much more interesting and complex their features have become as they accumulated knowledge and perspective over the years. Yet so many people reject the more complex character that develops with age if they succumb to the idealization of youth. They look at years past as lost instead of as a richness of amassed experience.
Emotions that are a natural part of being human are rejected as unworthy if they don’t fit the ideal to always be happy. We feel a sense of shame and failure when we can’t live up to it. There was a time when melancholy was considered a sign of depth and not necessarily unattractive. Rather than a failure to be happy it was a sign of a healthy reflection on life’s difficulties, of thoughtfulness, and wrestling with questions like the meaning of life and the circumstances beneath our suffering. Such thoughts build new mental circuits to handle them and connect them to other like experiences, developing wisdom to grapple with the troubles yet to come. Keats referred to the “vale of tears that schools an intelligence and makes of it a soul”. Hardships, disappointments and mistakes are valued as lessons that expand our humanity.
When an unyielding and idealized self-image takes hold it interferes with our ability to be honest with ourselves. We force ourselves to pretend, and the mold we create restricts our future growth. When we can’t pretend to be happy anymore we isolate ourselves lest anyone witness our failure. Yet some of the best conversations emerge from difficult times and the sharing strengthens the relationship. There’s more to learn from sadness. When Joyce Carol Oates was asked why she didn’t write any happy books, she answered, ”People don’t need help with happiness.” So much of my own work grew from painful confusions that needed to be externalized so they could be seen and understood.
Our ego is an inner image of who we think we are. It’s pressured to adopt external measurement and if we stray too far from the norm, there’s a diagnosis waiting. Letting go of what we want to believe about ourselves is emancipation from the prison of an ideal not necessarily of our own making. To watch and learn from the feelings flowing through us as we adjust to the world is to experience the true scope of being. Our wounds are pathways to our deepest places, home to our ability to empathize. Though sorrow is never pleasant, refusing to allow it makes us more intolerant of others’ suffering. The ego ideal is a construction, not a real thing that needs protection. The development of virtues like kindness and sensitivity to others depends on awareness of our true feelings and attention to the others in our midst. It depends on extending our focus outward and learning from where we are at any given moment, rather than getting lost in our head comparing our lives to illusory ideals.