Capable Capable
Capable Capable

Egoistic pugilistics

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” said Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism published in 1711. How is this related to egoistic pugilistics?

Rivalry makes the world go round. Here, in the competitive territory that is 21st century America, virtually every one of us is struggling to create a life of our own design. Resistance is inevitable. Others want what we want just as much as we want it, and they compete with us for jobs, prizes, awards, accolades, partners.

In this post, though, I’m addressing a particular form of competition, that is, the personally critical, between-two-adults egoistic prizefights that occur in the home, in the neighborhood, between mature siblings, between board and country club members or between peers at work or church.

In general, the first figurative sucker-punch is verbalized—in person or via phone, text or email. Or, notably, by a “look” or by silence. A critical blow. A disparaging thrust. A judgmental jab. And the fight between sovereign competitors with their own “ego-territory” to extend and defend is underway.

As it is not easy to reconfigure and reset the determined manner in which we reflexively manifest our egoistic presence, we go with what we know when these fights begin. Said another way, with not enough behavioral choices at hand to avoid them, we quickly default to mean-spirited name-calling and other expressions of jerkitude, as well as anger, sullenness and unapproachability.

(Needless to say, these egoistic punches and counterpunches harm our relationships and live a second time, third time or fourth time in our agitated, rationalization-filled intra-subjective monologues.)

Of course, it’s not easy to back off. A fragile ego exaggerates the effect of criticism and considers it a wound not only to be nursed but also to be returned in kind. Think about the presence of mind needed to avoid such fights—the nerve, the resourcefulness required in the heat of the moment. Are we open to reason and rationality, to being cooperative, to being a good loser (or gracious winner)? Are we willing to concede, apologize, forgive and to exhibit affinity, humility and gratitude?

This is the point: competing over something is one thing. However, when what is at stake in a prizefight is ego, the competition is over a myth, over nothing—a fool’s errand that someone wiser would avoid. A well-managed ego-function doesn’t need protection. Sometimes criticism can be handled judiciously, sometimes not. But when we “win” by offending another’s ego, we can expect a mean grudge match.

Life is a never-ending series of behavioral choices. Those that reflect the best of our imagination, courage and autonomy are game changers that determine not only who we become but also the reach of our usefulness.

If you haven’t enough behavioral skill, or cognitive distance on your immediacy, to manage your ego-function, here’s my advice: Don’t start these fights and don’t get sucked into them. In short, to paraphrase Alexander Pope whose Essay on Criticism is actually a long poem, rash or ignorant individuals get involved in situations that wiser people would avoid. 

In sum, an egoistic prizefight is an exercise in foolishness.

Despite our bound and determined nature, the seeming loss of emotional control and the competitive environment in which we find ourselves, it is best that we take responsibility for our ego-function and, through choice, avoid fighting over nothing. When we do, we are knowingly responsible for our fate and our experience.


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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.