“If right now our emotional reaction to seeing a certain person or hearing certain news is to fly into a rage or to feel despondent or something equally extreme, it's because we have been cultivating that particular habit for a very long time.”
While cleaning out drawers in the basement, I found a color photograph of my sister, Jerrie, and me. It's a studio photograph, of which there are very few. I look to be about four and Jerrie, perhaps eight. She is compliantly smiling in a made-up way, and, I promise you, I look like a bounty hunter—very sober, very serious, and not comfortable in the least with what is going on. At four, I was already a skeptic.
Most of us are born with a particular nature—some of us are easy-going from the beginning, some are intense, and some are, quite literally, difficult to deal with. We also develop our preferred defense mechanisms early on. We learn what works best for us, whether it is joking around, or people pleasing, or using anger to control and manipulate others into doing our will. Some of us learn that the sweeter we are, the more people love us, so we have to shut down all the parts of ourselves that aren't sweet. When anger bursts out we're as surprised as anyone else. We identify ourselves as easy-going, or intense, or tough, or intellectual, and that means we must tightly control the opposites of those emotions or put our identity at risk.
Over a lifetime, our preferred way of being in the world needs to evolve alongside our consciousness. All of our well-developed defenses begin to crumble around middle age. We get tired of pleasing everyone, or our excessive anger leads to hypertension, or our intensity irritates and exhausts us. Discomfort is usually the catalyst for change. Our basic nature stays the same, but emotionally we mature (hopefully) enough to include a range of responses to a variety of situations.
The purpose of defense mechanisms is to protect our ego. As young people, we are still building and honing our ego strengths—determining who we want to be and how we want to operate in the world. Later in life, we come to understand that ego is only one part of us, and we can move beyond its need for protection. When someone insults us, instead of flying into rage, we can acknowledge the wound to our ego, but not to give it license to retaliate. Likewise, we can stop care-taking and inserting ourselves into other people's lives. We don't have to respond to every event as though it's the apocalypse. In addition to an ego, we also have a soul. Instead of living from our ego, we can learn to live from our soul. It takes work, but it's a much better place to be.
In the Spirit,