Don’t Prevent Vanity; Vent It

The safe exercise of your delusions of grandeur.

Posted Jan 06, 2021

A pervasive psychological and spiritual assumption holds that ego is a problem we must overcome. Transcend ego. Become selfless, or as the Buddhists say, drop your ego.

You can hear its influence in the way people get defensive when accused of being egotistical, as though that means they’re somehow deficient souls, shallow, even evil. 

Couple this cultural norm with the growing concern that social media is making egomaniacs out of us with our virtue signaling, selfies, and our endless quest for likes. A lot of hand-wringing these days about vanity as though egotism is bad. Just say no to ego.

I think trying to purge ego is a fool’s errand. To some degree or other, we all have our vanity, even delusions of grandeur. No one is selfless and it's absurd to pretend we could be. 

As an origins-of-life researcher, I’ll argue that every organism is somewhat selfish, vying for its continued viability in what Darwin called life’s struggle for existence. Humans are selfish in a special way because, with language, we can fantasize, engaging in egotistical escapism impossible for any other creature.

I think of such delusions of grandeur as a necessary form of self-soothing given the world we humans have to contend with. Consider how many threats and opportunities a human can imagine compared to a dog, how many anxieties we juggle that no other creature can begin to comprehend. 

That’s what we get for having language. It makes possible a whole different kind of thinking impossible for any other organism. We humans live in two worlds—the real one that all creatures inhabit, and our imaginations, flooded with fears, and as an antidote, hopes, dreams, visions of prevailing heroically, happily ever after, once and for all. 

I agree that egotism is dangerous, but only when not vented safely. Hubris could well be humankind’s downfall. That’s why I advocate venting our delusions of grandeur safely and doing so with no more shame than exhaling or going to the bathroom. 

To me, egotistical escapism is a staple, no less necessary than food, sleep, air, and water. Deprived of escapism’s outlet, we get cranky or worse, we turn into cranks, playing out our egotistical fantasies in real life where they can do real damage. 

I see egotistical escapism as a necessary pressure release for every one of us and for society overall. I call it optimal illusion, safe escapism, or strategic gullibility. It should not be taboo. We should not be embarrassed by exercising our self-aggrandizing delusions through the many available outlets we have at our disposal—their availability a testament to how strong the appetite is to exercise our egos. 

Egotistical escapism is puffing ourselves up, everything from daydreaming to watching fiction, playing violent video games, getting drunk, or belonging to whatever spiritual or ideological community pretends it has it all figured out. That’s all escapism and I think it’s wonderful if done right. 

Egotistical escapism is like a mojo refueling station, a pit stop in fantasy land. You watch your favorite sports team win as if you’re on it,  you practice some religion and imagine you’ve found the one true way and just guaranteed yourself eternal life, you watch a Marvel movie and identify with the hero defeating the forces of evil. That refuels your mojo so you can go out and face reality.

Entertainment is often blended with art or education, but if you isolate the entertainment part, I think it’s ego escapism, a way to get your mojo back. Call it "ventertainment," entertainment we can use for venting safely, blowing off steam, venting our delusions of grandeur, aggression, frustration, libido, our unrealistically romantic views of ourselves. 

Ventertainment is like what we see in off-road vehicle ads, taking the exit away from traffic jams, freeing yourself from reality’s congestion. Or like a car’s clutch: Kick in the clutch, rev the engine, warm it up, burn off the egotistical crud that accumulates. Let out the clutch and you’re ready again for reality where the rubber hits the road.

Me, I watch a lot of fiction, especially comedy these days, by which I get to exercise my ego by laughing at fools even though I know I’m a fool too. 

I also play in bands and pretend I’m Jimi Hendrix. I’m not, but that’s OK. It’s fine to pretend. I’m a legend in my own mind and it’s good for me so long as I don’t force others to think I’m the badass I want to be. I’m a poser wannabe but I know it which makes my escapism safe. 

What then is the difference between healthy and unhealthy ego escapism? The heart of it is this: It’s not how far out you go but whether you remember to always come back to reality. Take your flights of fancy but always with a return ticket to reality secure in your heart pocket.

Some forms of escapism are very high status, others are scorned, considered shameful. I’m interested in demoting the highfaluting forms to the elevated status I hold for all escapism. I don’t think ideology or spirituality is any loftier than watching blockbuster movies or playing video games. It’s all a matter of what happens after your done with your egotistical escapism. Do you return to reality, thinking your fantasy is more real than reality? That’s dangerous. Or do you just get back to reality?

Imagine watching an Avengers movie and deciding you’re an avenger in real life. You go out and declare holy war on everyone and reality itself. Anyone who doesn’t believe that you’re an avenger is the evil enemy. They’re attacking you which means they’re attacking an avenger. Anyone who challenges your saintliness is a sinner and since it’s war, there’s no deed too dirty for a saint like you. 

That’s ego escapism gone sour. It’s what you get in cults. There’s been a lot of that going around lately. It’s people playing God, pretending that they’re eternally right, righteous, and mighty, and then forgetting that they’re playing. 

Humor your ego. Go crazy, but like our parents said, just play safe so no one gets hurt. 

Life is getting harder for most of us. We all need the pressure release, now more than ever.