“Gods suppressed become devils, and often it is these devils whom we first encounter when we turn inward.”
– Joseph Campbell
Today’s #WorldBookDay. In honor of one of the most brilliant brains I’ve never officially known, I’ve been re-obsessing over one of my favorite books, ever.
The Power of Myth – created by the rare and exquisite mind of Mr. Joseph Campbell – is a book that changed my life… or, at bare minimum, re-directed my future. I think I’d be a.) blissfully naïve (the worst of all fates) or b.) a supremely jaded asshole if it weren’t for Campbell’s insights.
It’s constantly changing how I perceive some of the most perplexing issues of being human. In college I was still clinging desperately to someone else’s biased idea of what religion was supposed to be. Campbell helped me come out of that tumultuous battle, a little scathed maybe, but also at profound peace.
Campbell is now helping me through another tumultuous inner battle: the mystery surrounding the interconnectedness of love, marriage, sacrifice, and happiness. I think this will be a phase I will reflect back upon in a few years in a similar light to which I look back at those confusing college days. Hopefully, I’ll remember how I was desperately clinging to someone else’s myopic idea of romantic love and marriage.
And while I’m far from peace on this, I’m pretty positive I’m on the right path. Thanks again, largely, to Campbell. You see, I’m pretty independent. I’m also pretty free-spirited, passionate, and selfish… yet paradoxically supremely susceptible to being swayed by others’ sensibilities.
I’m irrationally empathetic and can legitimately confuse others’ emotions as my own. My own ego becomes stifled under the weight of all the others detached from my own primary person.
This is a double-edged sword. I can get close to pretty much anyone who will take the time to talk to me long enough. I can honestly, and wholeheartedly, love anyone who shows me true pieces of their soul – the good and the bad, it doesn’t matter. I don’t judge easily. Everyone is basically good in my mind. Life just leads people into dark paths sometimes. I like walking on their paths to escape my own, occasionally.
Unfortunately, my ego is still its own separate entity – no matter how much I care about all those other dear egos I meet along the way. I can think about myself too much and completely ruin who I love. This is toxic to any relationship, but it’s deadly in a marriage. The ego, in fact, is the sole destroyer of marriage.
It’s a little devil urging you to pursue that which brings you pleasure and elicits passion. It also seeks justice when hurt. It keeps tabs; tit for tat. It’s not good with forgiveness. It’s stubborn. It’s vulnerable, but proud. It’s often sad, disappointed, and hurt. It’s basically every drunk person you’ve ever met – drugged up on raw emotion, fully uninhibited. It’s that crazy ex-girlfriend that calls crying, shamelessly, 45 times. It’s the insecure man brooding with testosterone, ready to fight anyone that belittles his poor, fragile, but fully exposed self-esteem.
It craves a unique autonomy, solely with the person it controls. It never wants to put down its sword. It’s always ready to defend its selfish motivations.
It’s self-preservation, but it can go too far. It can extinguish one’s potential to find a love that transcends one’s own sensibilities.
Philosopher Alan Watts once said, “the ego is nothing other than the focus of conscious attention.” And the ego loves outsider attention and will sometimes resort to childlike behavior to get it.
I’m a middle child, though… I’ve always put an unrealistic amount of pressure on my romantic partners to feed my ego. So, the notion of putting my own ego aside for a romantic partner was (and honestly, still is) a little foreign to me. I can act like a bratty child without realizing it.
But even before I had any understanding of what “marriage” really was (I literally just assumed it was true love… soul-mate stuff… destiny and all that whimsical fairytale fluff I’d been force fed my whole life), I stumbled upon Campbell’s description of it.
He said, “Marriage is not a simple love affair, it’s an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one. ”
Interesting, for sure. I mean, I was a student of psychology for awhile and we talked about the ego all the time. And obviously, I thought I was going to marry my “soul-mate” whom I was dating (but somehow couldn’t commit to), so I highlighted this for later.
And when he said this next bit about it, I didn’t want to believe it so I kept living in my fantasy world for who knows how many more years. I’m guessing I started to step out of my own little delusional love-paradigm about the time I felt I’d probably perish if I had to live through another heartbreak.
“When people get married because they think it’s a long-time love affair, they’ll be divorced very soon, because all love affairs end in disappointment. But marriage is a recognition of a spiritual identity.” -Campbell
But Campbell got even deeper with the whole thing here:
Marriage is not a love affair. A love affair is a totally different thing. A marriage is a commitment to that which you are. That person is literally your other half. And you and the other are one. A love affair isn’t that. That is a relationship for pleasure, and when it gets to be unpleasurable, it’s off. But a marriage is a life commitment, and a life commitment means the prime concern of your life. If marriage is not the prime concern, you’re not married….The Puritans called marriage “the little church within the Church.” In marriage, every day you love, and every day you forgive. It is an ongoing sacrament – love and forgiveness…. Like the yin/yang symbol….Here I am, and here she is, and here we are. Now when I have to make a sacrifice, I’m not sacrificing to her, I’m sacrificing to the relationship. Resentment against the other one is wrongly placed. Life in in the relationship, that’s where your life now is. That’s what a marriage is – whereas, in a love affair, you have two lives in a more or less successful relationship to each other for a certain length of time, as long as it seems agreeable.
So, that’s that. No big deal. Don’t storm out when you’re upset. Communicate and compromise. Put someone else’s feelings above your own sometimes. Sacrifice is a basic concept, really. What’s so hard about sacrifice if you truly love someone anyway?
But it’s sooo much easier to read this and, even genuinely understand it, than to live it.
Living it is hard because your ego harbors an insatiable hunger, breeding a roller-coaster of emotions that inevitably ensue if you pursue pleasure carelessly. For every bit of pleasure one experiences in life, the loss of that thing or that person carries an equal (arguably greater) sense of pain. But that’s what living is all about, right?
That’s where I get lost in this paradox. It’s like the ego embodies evil (if only by definition of selfishness at expense of others). And overcoming the ego… putting it aside for something or someone else greater than your own self, that’s love. Love is sacrifice. And committing to a cycle of pleasure and pain. Staying even when every fiber of your being would prefer to let it go. Staying because the long-term gains transcend temporal fleeting fits of happiness and pleasure. Love, then, is choosing personal pain so you don’t ruin who you love.
And that’s fucking hard, because you risk losing yourself by putting your ego aside… the ego being the “you in relation to all the commitments of your life, as you understand them.”
But the paradox is this: the ego is not only your greatest demon, it’s your greatest and only savior. When you sacrifice your desires and passions too much, your own unique path is no longer yours. It is someone else’s. You cannot realize, let alone fulfil, your greatest potential if you’ve allowed another to carve your path.
If you suppress that which is intrinsically YOU, Campbell says you lose the privilege of a lifetime – which is being exactly who you are.
The trick, of course, is to find the perfect balance. To channel your compassion in such a way that does not stifle your own ego. But, perhaps more importantly, to acquire grace and discretion – lest your ego live a full, but oft vile and gluttonous life.
With great freedom comes great responsibility. Self-defense is one thing, but be careful you aren’t recklessly waving your guns at the drop of every hat, destroying who you love.