Ego Trap

On Saturday the Washington Post ran a feature story on a Georgia woman who, in the reporter’s words, “is a case study in what [Trumpism] is becoming.” The main clue: her online name is Burnitdown.

I was grateful this wasn’t another article in which the reporter hectors us coastal liberals about how it’s our fault such people exist (they’ve existed from the country’s inception, as Richard Hofstadter showed sixty years ago) and how we have an obligation to placate them (even our unconditional surrender wouldn’t do that). Further along in the article, that gratitude deepened as the reporter coaxed the subject into opening up about what motivates her extremism.

The subject confided that from age eight she’s wondered, “What are we doing this for? What are we doing any of this for if we’re just going to die? You die, and it’s over. So, what’s the point?” Trumpism became the point for her, but “Sometimes I’m like, what if I’m wrong? It crosses my mind. Then I ask God: if I’m doing something wrong, please give me the strength to figure it out. Because I really want to understand what the point is. This can’t be what life is, that you get up and go to work and come home. That as humans, we’re nothing. I want people to realize we’re significant.”

Bingo! Now can you understand why we coastal liberals give all our little leaguers a trophy?

The central fact of human existence, true for all of us no matter how hard extremists on the right and left try to divide us, is that we are vulnerable. Beyond our physical vulnerability, we have psychological needs for context, meaning, dignity, safety, and stability. When those are denied us — when life seems pointless, our existence insignificant, and we don’t have the tools to make peace with that — we become susceptible to ideas, relationships, and ambitions that give us the illusion of purpose and significance, but in every other respect make no sense, and ultimately harm us and others.

To the degree we coastal liberals are different from the subject of the Post article, it’s only to the extent we understand this aspect of our nature and resist its perils. Using myself as an example, I take the bulk of my psychological fulfillment from being attentive to The Fabulous Wife and our cats, friends, and family. Suitably humble and benign, right? But even though I’m cognizant of life’s ego trap, I’m not without my grandiose impulses. I used to seek fulfillment in my job, which was futile. And I’m even worse in retirement! My base motivation for writing posts like this is to contribute to humanity’s discourse with itself across time and culture — even though I know hardly anyone will read this post next week, much less centuries from now, or translate it into another language. That delusion is way less toxic than campaigning for Marjorie Taylor Greene, but it’s a delusion nonetheless.

Spirituality consists not of following a belief system, but of freeing ourselves from delusion. Perhaps I’ll get there someday. Perhaps the woman in the Post story will let go of her ridiculous conspiracy theories and get there someday too. But I wouldn’t bet on either of us — or, with apologies, you — because it’s an almost impossible task. Even the Buddha’s renunciations were probably exaggerated by zealous followers.

Still, striving for freedom from delusion may be the most important thing we do. I wish that woman from Georgia the best.

Painting by Rembrandt called Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.
Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.



Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.