Egocentrism is a term generally used as a pejorative. But, every human is born into a world that exists only within the self. A baby reaches out to touch a parent’s face and discovers another. His/her existence for the next several years involves many such discoveries. At some point, normally before pre-school, the outside world that seems to revolve around the infant reveals the most intimate and important experience of all: he/she is not only separate, but a subject or conscious agent in this world. Unfortunately, this revelation does not prepare that infant to deal with this outside world. For the next several years, the child will explore his/her ability to interact, to change, to build or destroy the things in this world. More significantly, he/she will learn to connect and communicate with parents, other children, and adults, mostly patterning behavior learned from the home environment. As the child grows into adolescence and adulthood, knowledge of both the physical and social world expands. But, at every point in human development, perception of the outside world is relative. In fact, that perception gradually becomes an ever-expanding network that exists only in the individual, not in the world that exists outside of the veil of his/her perception. It is only when we discover our personal isolation that we begin to understand our limitations and the only path to maturity.
Egocentrism is the albatross that warns us of the storm on the horizon. It tells us that we are not safe at sea, unless we attempt to steer free of the storm. Development of an ego, in psychological terms, is an escape from the id. But it can be its own prison. In fact, we can never escape our personal perspective, but we can expand it to include other perspectives. This expansion is the pivotal experience of surviving in a world that exists with or without any one of us. It is keyed by a personal decision to be open to what the world and others can teach us. But that openness is not a matter of rote learning or of acquiring control over people and things in the service of personal status and ego. Egocentrism may be a birthright, but it need not be a life sentence.
My wife is an elementary school teacher. When I relate to her my blog topics, she often sees them in the context of her children. What she recognizes is my humble attempt to describe a petulant resistance to facts and verifiable evidence—in effect, an inability to deal with the world outside of one’s personal, limited perspective. For example, the first step in conflict resolution is the attempt to understand an opposing perspective. A child who misbehaves in the classroom often has an unresolved grievance. Discovering the nature of that grievance is usually the first step in correcting the misbehavior. On a world stage, consider Vladimir Putin’s grievance with the West. Is his reaction to NATO’s ever closer deployment at Russia’s border different in kind from John Kennedy’s reaction to Soviet missiles in Cuba? The tactical nuclear weapons presently deployed in Eastern Europe are comparable to the destructive power of their less sophisticated predecessors positioned in Cuba fifty-five years ago. Granted it may not be possible to dissuade Putin, but the first step in de-escalating this current adversarial contest is an attempt to demilitarize both sides of the Eastern European border. Major breakthroughs in world diplomacy have almost always resulted from a recognition of another’s perspective. Certainly, the American led Iran Nuclear Deal is an example. For those few of us who read the agreement, the long list of appendix items reveals to what extent both parties went to recognize each other’s concerns and needs.
Closer to home, another example of egocentrism is what I will term “political validation.” The Republicans have fallen into the trap of validating their previous political promise of repealing Obamacare without considering whether it is the right thing to do. Yesterday, our President called a meeting of Senate Republicans to encourage them to repeal Obamacare now and develop its replacement over the next two years. He promised as much to his electorate. Apparently, he wants to validate an ill-conceived political promise. Meanwhile, many who voted for him reportedly (if you believe the polls) say they still support him. Considering that many of them will lose their healthcare, they unhappily demonstrate how political validation of their vote can take precedence over what is right – even at their personal detriment. It is usually considered heroic to put one’s personal welfare at risk for a cause greater than oneself. In this instance, it seems personal risk serves only personal pride. Such is the price of political validation. It’s like the child who refuses to recognize that recalcitrant behavior earns expulsion from the class. That child would rather be punished than change behavior.
My personal world is as limited and egocentric as anybody’s. But whatever I have learned and whatever maturity I have gained derive solely from my reflections on the borders of my own perception. At those borders rest the barriers to connection with others and the outside world. Every time I crossed one of my barriers, I learned something—both about another perspective and about myself. It is that connection that builds relationships, begins to overlay differences with empathy, and creates communities. It also allows us to share a common understanding of the world. Without these relationships and common understanding, we would find ourselves isolated and insecure. Our only solace might be a feeble attempt to project our personal perspective on everything and everyone. In effect, we would either expect others to share our childlike fantasy or, if circumstances permitted, compel them to accept it. Who amongst us would choose to live so?
I choose to live in the real world. And I wish the same for you, my readers.