I am way out of my league here, but this loss of roles we experience as we age has me exploring ego and self-identity.
We begin our lives just being. We are here, with no agendas, roles or goals. We have a sort of pure essence, a being deep inside. This seems to be our soul, our true nature. Its purpose is pure joy. We’ve all had those soul moments of perfect clarity, peace and deep knowing.
As we grow, our ego develops to help us define ourselves and find a place in the world. A healthy sense of self develops (hopefully) through repeated influences of family, school and social environment. This includes our likes and dislikes, our sense of right and wrong, what we learn, expectations of family and place and numerous other conditions that determine who we think we are. This ego can be a very useful tool. It only becomes destructive when we identify it as our whole being, or when we get too attached to it by focusing on achievement, desire and power.
I’m thinking there are two kinds of identity: ego-identity, which is how we want others to see us, and self-identity, who we really think we are, honestly. Does the development of our soul and self-identity depend on ego-identity for its teachings? Does living with a fully functioning ego give self-identity a chance to collect the data it needs to learn?
So there I was recovering from sinus surgery and then the flu, and for several weeks, I was cut off from everything in my life that has meaning – stripped away from my home, friends, activities I love, connections, etc. I felt formless, floating, with no structure. It was like dying, I think, in that my life became narrower and narrower.
Who am I if I can’t do the things I love? Do these things I love to do make up my ego or my soul? Do they construct my identity? Which? Is there a difference? Are they part of the soul’s growth toward authenticity? What’s left when we can’t do them anymore?
I’m not talking about identifying with accomplishments and roles here, and how tied people are to what they do and what they achieve. Many people believe that what they do is who they are, rather than it being only part of who they are. I’m referring to just the simple joys that give our lives meaning and richness – being with family, walking in nature, reading, working our bodies, listening to music, etc. – what I think of as self-identity.
Do we move closer and closer to no ego as we age? Is the work in aging to uncover all the ego-restrictions we’ve experienced during our lives? Do we go back to ourselves and our soul’s essence the closer we get to death? Is death this time of no ego, only the pure embodiment of our spirit? And love, where does that fit in?
These questions are huge, and I feel somewhat grateful for opening to this unique time of illness to bring them to me. The drama of the ego certainly brings up many soul questions. I don’t have all the answers, but I find the exploration fascinating. The not-knowing in itself is something I’m trying to practice more, as difficult as it is. Whew!
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.