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Some Thoughts on Ego

Six days in a hospital ward being treated for a near-fatal illness taught me a few things, and the most major ones were completely unexpected. As I recovered something resembling sanity from the depths of fever, I observed that I was in an environment totally unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I had not been in hospital since I was 7, and though I had watched professionals save my wife and daughter’s lives during childbirth a few years ago, and again observed with awe the dedication of nurses in particular when my wife had to have various medical procedures done later, I had not experienced these things first hand over a protracted period. I’ll try to summarise my ‘findings’:

1. In the hospital ward, I gradually came to realise that I was observing a totally Ego-free zone.

Nursing staff were 99% female — even the doctors were largely female. The level of dedication to the ‘other’ was nothing short of extraordinary — though all the patients were male, and one in particular was a pain, there was never the slightest back-off or deviation from total duty of care. Some emergencies arose, and in each case an entire team would instantly rush towards the crisis point with zero regard for personal safety or convenience.

This was staggering to me. With my natural timidity, unwillingness to experience discomfort and general selfishness, this energy was astonishing and hard for me to compute with at first. It resembled a torrent of dispassionate, intellectual and almost ruthless Love for one’s fellow human beings, but delivered without romance or even self-awareness, in a matter-of-fact blunt Yorkshire manner, no trimmings. Had I tried to point it out to those involved, I think I would have met smiles but blank stares, as if to say ‘Of course this is the way we are — is there any other?’

It was as though I was witnessing a different kind of human being, one for whom self-regard was entirely alien — almost an angelic entity. Each nurse was very much her own character — some humorous, some down-to-earth, some cheery, some naive — but all were of this same angelic breed: the patient came before everything.

It is my tendency to overthink things — just ask my wife. But this phenomenon deserved further thought.

2. Ego stood out like a rock in a stream.

Pondering this afterwards, I began to see that the ego of the patient (including my own), when it did manifest itself, was like a rock, around which this general flow of charity or intellectual concern or care or whatever you want to call it flowed. Despite efforts at primitive self-assertion, the stream of selflessness was more powerful and would either circumvent the efforts of the ego or simply erode them.

I got to thinking about the purpose and role of the ego, in this scenario, or any scenario. Here, it appeared as an obstruction, hindering the greater good — but was there a positive side to it? Ego asserts the importance of self above environment, or of one viewpoint above that of the greater good. I haven’t yet finished pondering this, but it seems to me that what we call ‘ego’ might be a mental equation for use in extreme circumstances, an attempt to preserve the individual in a crisis where he or she feels abandoned or alone — but that it then ‘carries over’ into less critical environments, causing individuals to respond as though they were under threat when the threat is gone. Thus ego distorts reality and tries to warp the environment to fit its own limited purposes.

More thinking will no doubt follow. But I offer these thoughts up as a beginning.

I am entirely grateful for my experience and am at a loss as to how to repay or respond to what I witnessed. I hope that time will erode any stone within me and enable me one day to join that tremendous river.


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