Centuries ago our ancestors, in the throes of self-centeredness, cherished the commonly held belief that the Earth was right smack at the center of the universe. Even the poorest peasant could find solace in the notion of being at the center: “If the Earth is at the center, then I am, too.” What a sweet narcissistic way to perceive reality!
Copernicus and then Galileo, wielding scientific knowledge of our solar system, exposed the fallacy of that self-centeredness. Another narcissistic hurt, applied by Charles Darwin, informed the proud lords and ladies of the Industrial Revolution that they were descendants of early primates. Darwin was indignantly denounced by millions of people. To accept his proposition was to be humbled, offended, and belittled. A century and a half after Darwin, many millions still deny the science.
It appears that, at some point in history, we slipped through a little warp in the doorway of perception and placed our mind at the center of existence. We were proud of our clever mind and believed it elevated us far above other creatures. We fashioned God in our image and required that He focus his attention on us, confirming our special status. This narcissism stands on shaky ground. One minute we’re jubilant in our pride, the next we’re shaking in anger at being slighted or offended.
Narcissism has its genesis in the self-centeredness of the infant. An infant understands its existence in terms of self-centeredness. An infant, lacking experience and the development of intelligence, knows only its own sensations. The infant has no ability to perceive reality with any objectivity. For infants, nothing exists beyond their sensations. Each child is the center of his or her universe. Childhood development (as well as adult development) is a process of learning to overcome this distorted perception and become more objective and discerning.
Most adults get only part way there. We’re still seeing ourselves and the world with childish eyes. In a primitive way, our intelligence is held hostage to our lingering self-centeredness and egotism. It feels to us, as part of our resistance to inner growth, that we’ll crumble into nothingness if we part company with our now-outdated mental-emotional operating system.
We fiercely protect the mental and emotional conclusions of self-centeredness, among them a rigid individuality, sense of separation, distinctions about alleged superiority and inferiority, and even a dog-eat-dog mentality. Many of us can’t fathom, as climate change intensifies, that we could become extinct. When reality intrudes upon this self-centeredness, we hole up behind the barricades of wilful ignorance. Under siege from the world’s growing consciousness, many people retreat to the psychological fortifications of stubborn narcissism and wilful ignorance.
Sigmund Freud inflicted another narcissistic hurt when he said we’re not masters in our own house. We’re powerfully influenced by unconscious dynamics that can produce suffering and self-defeat. This notion didn’t sit well with our ego-centered point of view. Through this mentality, we hate the idea that our sense of reality could be shaped, without our knowledge or consent, by processes we know nothing about. The situation compares to an insecure king who becomes enraged at the discovery that his minister of state is conducting the kingdom’s internal affairs behind his back.
The ego is going to fight back. Enlisted by their own ego, experts rushed forward to develop ego psychology, along with positive psychology, behavioral-cognitive approaches, and other systems that downplay the irrational side of human nature. Some experts, especially among academic psychologists, have treated Freud as a charlatan and mock his work. While a few of Freud’s findings were incorrect or imprecise, his basic findings about the unconscious mind’s irrationality and influence are now accepted by modern science.
The next narcissistic hurt, largely unknown, is such a grievous hurt that it has been almost entirely repressed. This hurt reveals not only that we’re not masters in our own house but that we’re also perpetrators of our suffering and self-defeat. Unconsciously, we make choices to hold on to unresolved negative emotions from our past involving deprivation, refusal, helplessness, criticism, rejection, abandonment, and a sense of worthlessness. This causes us to replay and recycle these painful emotions, even while, through psychological defenses, we strive to cover up our collusion in generating these negative experiences. In other words, we’re inwardly programmed for suffering and self-defeat.
This knowledge was put forward by Edmund Bergler, M.D. a New York psychiatric psychoanalyst who wrote 25 books on depth psychology, many of them published by leading American publishers. He also had 273 scholarly articles published in major medical and psychological journals of his day. He revealed an inner program that traps us in suffering and self-defeat. He discovered, basically, that our relationship to life and suffering contains an element of self-defeat, a deadly flaw that he called unconscious masochism. This masochism, he said, is the life-blood of all neurosis. The masochism is psychological, with a biological basis, and sexual activities are only one of the many fields of human activity in which it can be acted out. Humanity is doomed to perpetual self-damage, he believed, unless this unconscious flaw is exposed and addressed.
This deep knowledge Bergler uncovered activates our unconscious resistance to the point that, in ironic retaliation, we have unconsciously denied his existence. His work is hardly ever mentioned in university courses or programs, though no one has set out in any systematic way to try to refute his theories. From what I can determine, never in the history of the world has such a prolific writer, published by so many prestigious establishments, been so completely ignored after death. A book of mine, appearing almost 50 years after his death, is the only one written about his work. The shunning of Bergler’s discoveries is one of the ego’s great victories over reality. Unfortunately, Bergler can more easily be dismissed because he made one serious mistake: Reflecting the mid-twentieth-century ethos, he stated in several of his books that the homosexual orientation is neurotic. His Wikipedia entry is now supervised by people who, it appears, want to downplay his importance.
Humanity faces still another narcissistic hurt, one that may be our ego’s biggest threat. We don’t want to come to terms with the oneness of all life. We cringe in the face of non-duality. Most of us perceive reality through a sense of duality—you and me, us and them, my country versus yours, my rights and money versus your needs, my beliefs as opposed to others, the value of my life versus that of another person, my entitlements versus the preservation of organic life. This outlook is rigid and myopic. It causes us to operate like self-interest machines, each programmed by our egotism (and, deeper down, painful self-doubt) to live for our little acquisitive self and for whatever pleasures and benefits we can grab for the moment. We’re not meant to be isolationists inside thick skulls. A more evolved consciousness understands that, metaphorically speaking, we are points of light in a great web of life. We’re all dependent on each other’s goodwill, generosity, and intelligence. This is a reality we can bring into some focus when we enlist our imagination, feel the strength to be humble, and activate our compassion.
People are becoming more conscious. We’re in a paradigm shift, and each of us influences the tipping point. Human beings may be an invasive species fated to self-destruction by a deadly flaw. Yet we’re also wonders of nature, destined to become champions of the Earth. It’s a glorious battle between darkness and light, delusion and truth, which gives meaning to existence.