The Ego and “Distinction Drawing”

Fr. Richard Rohr today offered observations about the ego which are relevant to my present focus on the “distinction drawing” that is an essential part of our identity.  He pointed out how the ego is concerned only about itself which is just a basic dimension of being human and only becomes toxic when it metastasizes and begins to project its shadow outside onto “them” and in extreme attempts to obliterate “them.”  The best example is Isis but the same phenomena is found with any extremist group.

Ordinary ego functioning is, yes, “egotistic” but it is usually benign and helps provide group/tribal coherence.  It provides an identity which always sets one apart from “them.”  I shared recently about my upbringing in a conservative Landmark Baptist Church and it does provide an example of an inordinate need to “draw distinctions” and thus overly emphasized the biblical admonishment, “Come out ye from among them and be ye separate” and “Be ye a peculiar people.”  I often facetiously note to friends that my little church clearly succeeded in this endeavor and, with chagrin, admit I won the prize for “peculiar”!  But let me assure you that in my little central Arkansas community these people were not toxic, were very good people, and did a great job in providing me the social and educational structure that would allow me to now be able to “discourse” about them.  Conservative groups, with non-toxic ego needs, are the backbone of any tribe and even of the entire world.

But when the toxicity metastasizes, we find phenomena like Isis and Westboro Baptist Church, the latter of which is a caricature of Baptist churches.  In these groups the “distinction drawer” has become so powerful due to repressed fears and anxieties from the reptilian brain that there is a need to strike out at somebody.  In a way they are so much under the grip of the unconsciousness that they are powerless which is how Rohr interprets Jesus’ dying words on the Cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus knew that those who hated him to the point of wanting to kill him merely were not conscious of what they were doing.

When distinction drawing becomes too rigid, when the need for boundaries becomes paramount, it always leads to an over emphasis of what sets the group apart rather seeking for common denominators with others. It is not accidental that one of the most appealing dimensions of Donald Trump is his promise to “Build that wall” to keep out the Mexicans.  And it is not often remembered now but not long after he started this emphasis one of his competitors went to the absurd extreme of proposing to build a wall between our country and Canada also!  Trump’s message appeals to frightened people who see their out dated certainties threatened.  The message of “building a wall” is a symbol that resonates with the need to “set boundaries” and keep change from happening, not recognizing that “change” is an essential dynamic of life and must be embraced rather than opposed.  Otherwise we would still be living in the Stone Age.

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