Have you ever met people who could only be described as self-centered, boastful, conceited, or vain? What makes them so egotistical? And what is egotism anyway? That’s what a Prime Minister of the Tang Dynasty (618 ~ 907AD) wanted to know, so he asked an acclaimed Zen master, “What is egotism?”
The famous monk slowly turned his head to face his questioner, and while sneering said, “Only the greatest of fools can ask such a stupid question!” The Prime Minister grew red and trembled in anger. At that point, the monk revealed a peaceful smile and gently said, “THAT, Mr. Prime Minister is egotism!”
Have you ever been insulted? If so, how did you feel? Did you get angry? If you did, why? Isn’t it because of pride? Isn’t it because you’re conceited? You see, there are only two kinds of egotists – those who admit it and the rest of us. Yes, we are all egotistical to a degree. That’s just another way of saying we are all INSECURE to a degree. Why else would we get upset? If I were to call a 270 lb professional wrestler a ‘skinny weakling,’ do you think he would feel hurt? Of course not! He realizes that my words do not change his size and strength, so he would probably just smile at my ridiculous statement.
Egotism, then, is a mask we wear to hide the faults or weaknesses we believe we have. The foundation of egotism is the delusion that we’re different, the delusion that some of us are better than others. But our mask will fall aside of its own accord once we realize that we are all the same. We share the same fears, hopes, and dreams. Once we understand that, there is nothing to fear, nothing to get upset about.
We must take care not to become trapped in the imaginary world of superiority and inferiority. There is much more than peace of mind at stake. Much of the harm that is done in the world is done by people who want to feel superior. Why can’t the Jews and Palestinians get along? Why do the Sunni and Shiite factions quarrel? Why do Hindus and Muslims fight? It is hardly surprising that Thomas Carlyle (1795 ~ 1881) wrote, “Egotism is the source and summary of all faults and miseries.”
But it is not only what takes place in distant lands that we need to be concerned about. We also need to be aware of the happenings in our community, workplace, and family. Those who fall prey to egotism are quick to take offense and resort to violence. Road rage shootings are an extreme example of the possible harmful effects of unbridled egotism.
True, we know and like ourselves more than anyone else, so talking about ourselves comes easily and is pleasurable. But to do so excessively is to ignore others. And when we do so, we deny ourselves of the opportunity to foster powerful friendships and learn from them. For our own good, we need to drop any remnants of egotism.
Egotists believe that if they hadn’t been born, people would have been wondering why. Yet, if we could only see how small a spot our death will leave, we would be able to give up our illusions of greatness. For as Charles Simmons (1798 ~ 1856) wrote, “When a person feels disposed to overestimate his own importance, let him remember that mankind got along very well before his birth, and that in all probability they will get along very well after his death.”
Just in case we’re tempted by the lure of egotism, here are some points to think about.
1. Egotism is harmful to our personal growth. After all, conceited people never get anywhere because they think they’re already there. So, you see, the person who knows everything has a lot to learn. Rather than admiring ourselves, we need to admire goodness and kindness, for how else can we grow? In the same degree that we build up ourselves, we tear down or fail to value others.
2. The result of egotism is the opposite of what we seek. That is, instead of showing how great we are, it merely broadcasts our own self-doubt or insecurity. It is like a bald man wearing an ill-fitting wig; no one is fooled.
3. Egotism turns others off; we lose friends. Aren’t the emptiest people in the world those who are full of themselves? The bigger the head, the smaller the heart, and the smaller the heart, the less we will attract others. So, egotists are not merely people who think too much of themselves; they’re also people who think too little of others. They are infected with a strange disease that makes everyone sick, other than themselves.
4. Egotism is unnecessary. If we could only recognize how wonderful each of us is, there would be no need for it. Alexander Pope (1630 ~ 1714) explains it well: “Conceit is to nature what paint is to beauty; it is not only needless, but it impairs what it would improve.”
5. Egotism is not justified. Everything that we are today, we are because of the help we have received from others. Instead of boasting, let’s express our gratitude for the help we have received by offering help to others. If a great man like Albert Einstein (1879 ~ 1955) felt that way, how much more so should we feel? Here is what he said, “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”
If you wish to be critical of egotism, be critical of your own, never of others. After all, you can never know the heart of another. That person we think is aloof may be shy. That person we think is boastful may be enthusiastic. It is easy to misjudge others; the only heart you can be sure of is your own. Here is Dean Martin (1917 ~ 1995) describing how he was misjudged, “When Jerry Lewis and I were big, we used to go to parties, and everybody thought I was big-headed and stuck up, and I wasn’t. It was because I didn’t know how to speak good English, so I used to keep my mouth shut.”
Any great wit cannot resist the chance to act egotistically in jest. And, of course, that’s always welcomed. Here are two examples. When German Chancellor Lugwid Erhard said to President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908 ~ 1973), “I understand you were born in a log cabin.” L.B.J. replied, “No, no, no! You have me confused with Abe Lincoln. I was born in a manger.” And when George Bernard Shaw (1856 ~ 1950) was leaving a party, he said, “I would have been bored silly if I hadn’t been there myself.”
Finally, let’s stop talking about ourselves, for it will be done anyway after we leave. Instead, let’s remember the words of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749 ~ 1832) who wrote, “He who does not think much of himself is much more esteemed than he imagines.”