Ten years ago, 19 hijackers changed the course of world history. Using jet airliners as enormous guided missiles, they were able to knock down the twin towers, damage the Pentagon and briefly terrorize the most powerful nation on earth.
As America pauses to reflect on the anniversary of the attack, we will mourn those who died and perhaps wonder about the bigger meaning of it all. Years from now, I believe we will think about the 9/11 attacks in a very different light than we do today. In the long view, it may be regarded as symbolic of the destructive potential of the human ego at its worst.
Ego. Western psychology tells us to strengthen it, and Eastern philosophy tells us to get rid of it, but neither of these traditions have considered the reason human beings even have an ego in the first place. The ego is a function of the brain that arose in evolution through the pressures of natural selection. It's purpose is to coordinate the disparate thoughts, emotions, body sensations, memories and desires into a semblance of unity. It is a mental construction, a symbol of our total organism that allows us to engage in complex behavior. Most humans call this chimera of brain software "me," firmly believing that this construction is actually who they are. Ego identification has been the defining human experience for millennia. But the long age of ego dominance may be coming to a close.
The evolution of the human race has not ended. Although the natural-selection pressures we face may no longer be biological, evolution continues, and our species changes for the better with each successive generation. IQs are steadily rising. Human rights went from nonexistent to a dominant world issue in less than 100 years. Modern medicine formed itself in less than 150 years. Democratic revolutions have been breaking out around the globe for more than 200 years. Businesses have steadily moved away from labor exploitation toward egalitarian teams. The Internet is turbocharging our access to new and different viewpoints, making us more aware and tolerant. And each generation relieves the culture from the pressure of yet another taboo, becoming more open about money, sex, relationships, illness and mental and emotional difficulties. Instead of problems hiding behind closed doors, everything is more transparent and out in the open.
These changes signal that people are moving beyond the constricted, dominance-oriented, narrow self-interest of the ego and are starting to integrate themselves into the larger process of life as it evolves on the planet. Someday the sort of dangerous, delusional ego -- so full of its own self-centered importance it can smash airliners into skyscrapers -- may become a relic of our past.
Albert Einstein wrote:
"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest ... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us."
The "prison" of thoughts and feelings that Einstein is describing is the ego, which is within each of us. As the human species continues to change, grow and evolve, it is possible that someday soon we will leave the confines of the ego, be able to look back upon it and see it for what it is: a function, rather than an entity -- a trick of our brain software, not a "me" or an identity. It is not that the ego will disappear any more than our lungs or legs will go away, but instead that human beings will be able to understand that the person that they believe themselves to be is nothing more than a mental creation.
We will never forget the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001, nor will we forget the many innocent lives that were lost on that day. It is possible, however, that within a century we will remember it very differently -- as a terrible reminder of the dark days of the ego.
Read more about the ego in "Ego: The Fall of the Twin Towers and the Rise of an Enlightened Humanity."