There is a critical moment that must come in every person’s life—particularly when we’re young. It’s a painful moment, but a necessary one.
It’s when all the illusions they have about themselves are exposed and blown apart.
A teenage Charlie Parker thinks he is tearing it up on stage, right in the pocket with the rest of the crew, until Jo Jones throws a cymbal at him and chases him away in humiliation. A young Lyndon Johnson is beat to a pulp by a Hill Country farm boy over a girl, shattering his picture of himself as “cock of the walk.” For me, it was getting called out by my boss for a bad attitude, in front of all my co-workers. I was so embarrassed, I had a panic attack that night and went to the hospital.
In the novel Fight Club, the character Jack’s apartment is blown up. All of his possessions—“every stick of furniture,” which he pathetically loved—were lost. Later it turns out that Jack blew it up himself. He had multiple personalities, and “Tyler Durden” orchestrated the explosion to shock Jack from the sad stupor he was afraid to do anything about.
That’s what these moments are. Our lives are exploded because they need to be.
It would be nice if it didn’t have to be that way. If we could nicely be nudged to correct our ways, if a quiet admonishment was what it took to shoo away illusions, if we could manage to circumvent ego on our own. But it is just not so. The Reverend William A. Sutton observed some 120 years ago that “we cannot be humble except by enduring humiliations.” How much better it would be to spare ourselves these experiences, but sometimes it’s the only way the blind can be made to see.
In Greek mythology, characters often experience katabasis—or “a going down.” They’re forced to retreat, they experience a depression, or in some cases literally descend into the underworld. When they emerge, it’s with heightened knowledge and understanding.
That’s what this is—a going down.
I’ll tell you it hurts. But it’s worth it.
In fact, many significant life changes come from moments in which we are thoroughly demolished, in which everything we thought we knew about the world is rendered false. It was in those moments—when the break exposes something unseen before—that you were forced to make eye contact with a thing called Truth. No longer could you hide or pretend.
Such a moment raises many questions: How do I make sense of this? How do I move onward and upward? Is this the bottom, or is there more to come? Someone told me my problems, so how do I fix them? How did I let this happen? How can it never happen again?
The problem is actually when we avoid these moments—when we put off the realizations within them.
Hemingway had his own rock bottom realizations as a young man. The understanding he took from them is expressed timelessly in his book A Farewell to Arms. He wrote, “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”
Look at Lance Armstrong. He cheated, but so did a lot of people. It was when this cheating was made public and he was forced to see—if only for a second—that he was a cheater that things got really bad. He insisted on denying it despite all the evidence. He insisted on ruining other people’s lives. We’re so afraid to lose our own esteem or, God forbid, the esteem of others, that we contemplate doing terrible things. And when he was finally called to account—he lost almost everything. “If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground,” Emile Zola once wrote, “it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”
That’s what happened to Lance Armstrong. It can happen to any one of us.
My moment, when I was confronted by my boss, was a result of my youthful arrogance. I understand that. What’s complicated is that I can also see now, as an adult the same age my boss was then, that his response was completely inappropriate and excessive. I could have, in that moment, said “Fuck you” and walked away—throwing out everything he said because of how it was delivered. It’s always so tempting to turn to that old friend denial (which is your ego refusing to believe that what you don’t like could be true).
But I didn’t. Instead, I processed it, and learned from it. I took what was valuable within it and put the rest aside.
I’m grateful that I did—grateful that it happened. Just as Lyndon Johnson was for getting his ass kicked (he finally decided to go to college shortly thereafter). If we could help it, it would be better if we never suffered illusions at all. It’d be better if we never had go over the edge. That’s why I say that “Ego is the Enemy.” It’s why I actually tattooed it on my arm. Because if we lose sight of that, we end up with one of these moments.
It’s up to us how we use it. Hopefully, we find ourselves, not long after, standing on the edge of the hole we dug for ourselves, looking down inside it, and able to smile fondly at the bloody claw prints that marked our journey up the walls.
This piece is adapted from the book Ego is the Enemy, published by Penguin/Portfolio.