...the Roman Catholic Church generated a list of the worst sins going, the root causes of all that is wrong in our broken world (and there’s plenty wrong in this broken world). They even came up with a name for the list (because not only do we pretty much all like lists, we like naming our lists): The Seven Cardinal Sins. Cardinal in this usage, of course, has nothing to do with the bird, or for that matter, the members of the Pope’s College of Cardinals, the assemblage of his chief advisors. The other meaning of cardinal, the one applicable here, is principal or chief, as in The Seven Most Important Sins, if we were paraphrasing.
This list is pretty comprehensive. What’s on it? you ask. Well, here they are: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. And actually, some are applicable in more than one area. Lust, for instance, in our hyper-sexualized society, is usually taken to mean sexual lust. But lust also applies to many other things, like power and possessions and so on. Gluttony doesn’t just apply to food, where we would traditionally put it, but to excessive desire for just about anything. Somebody (or several somebodies, more likely) evidently gave the list quite a lot of thought.
The worst of them all, the rootiest root cause of all the others, said the Church, was pride. And that’s really where today’s post comes about, stemming from a recent Twitter exchange I had with someone (@drranshaw, if you’re wondering). Because, you see, in my own hubris, I respectfully have to disagree with the Church. The cause of all evil is.... (drum roll, please)... egocentrism.
(Twitter isn’t really a forum for weighty philosophical debate --- even if one is not constantly trying to compete with pictures of cats doing silly things or pictures of food people are eating --- because that 140 character limit can be, well, limiting. Although one can make fairly pithy philosophical comments even within that parameter if one has a mind to, he said modestly. After all, as Will said, brevity is the soul of wit. But long philosophical discourse is out. So I decided my blog was a better forum for the concept, and here we are.)
Dictionary.com describes egocentrism as: having or regarding the self or the individual as the center of all things: an egocentric philosophy that ignores social causes. 2. having little or no regard for interests, beliefs, or attitudes other than one's own; self-centered. Yep. Sums it up very well.
You see, being self-centered --- having little or no regard for others’ interests, beliefs or attitudes, as the definition says --- is just a short hop, skip and a jump from doing really nasty things. Unchecked egocentrism leads us to say that our wants, our needs, our desires are more important than anyone else’s, and it is therefore okay to trample over anybody else’s wants, needs or desires. Which, by the way, encompasses pretty much all of the Seven Cardinal Sins.
Now, we’re all born egocentric. It’s all a baby knows. It’s a survival mechanism, really: I want to be fed, right now! I want my diaper changed, right now! I want to be held and soothed, right now! I don’t care that you just did any or all of these things for me recently, I need them doing again, right now! And, of course, because a baby is unable to articulate these needs by engaging in dialogue, its method is to cry and yell --- an effective approach, as any parent can attest.
But... what is supposed to happen is that parents educate the child out of his/her egocentrism when he/she’s old enough to understand: No, We Don’t Behave Like That. You need to wait your turn; you need to share; you need to play fair and not hit people when you don’t get your own way. And so on.
Unfortunately, as I tell my students, it seems there are a lot of parents out there not doing their jobs very well, because there seems to be a helluva lot of people --- adults, not just children --- who are bent on doing their own egocentric thing, to the detriment of the rest of us.
Look at historical figures --- or the villains in our stories, for that matter --- and you can boil their motives and actions down to egocentrism: I’m more important than you, so... or I know better than you, so... or I want this and I don’t care whether you agree or not, so... It’s pretty much all in there: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride, all wrapped up in the narcissistic little world of the egocentric who just doesn’t give a damn about anything but his/her own wants and desires. They make great story villains --- but they’re not great people to have to deal with in real life.
How do we deal with egocentric people (or characters)? Well, pretty much like we deal with anyone we don’t care for very much: give in, ignore, or fight (not necessarily physically). Each approach has its own perils and positives. With our stories, as writers, our characters pretty much have to fight the egocentric, because otherwise, there’s no story, or leastways, no story anyone would want to read... to paraphrase Tennyson, our characters strive, seek, find, and do not yield.
In the meantime, you may want to take some comfort from Sir Walter Scott about the egocentric:
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.
It kind of takes the long view, which, I know, is not particularly satisfying when one is confronted by a narcissistic jerk... but sometimes, we need to take the long view.
After all, to do otherwise could be egocentric.