I was reading international news stories, when I came across something heart-wrenching. It was about a small boy who was desperate for his parents’ attention. He began tearing up the furniture and damaging the house. He just wanted his parents to stop ignoring him. He wanted them to speak to him, even if only in anger. A person’s ego at any age is damaged by being disregarded.
This kind of behaviour is common. We see it in many households. It is a child’s plea for attention, and it often goes unheeded.
In this particular instance, the father returned from work to his new home to see that his overactive child had torn up the new furniture and broken a window. In his anger, he punished the child by tying his hand to one of the fixtures of the house.
The child’s mother was very upset about this punishment, but she could not say anything to her husband.
Many hours later, the child stopped crying. His mother came to him and saw that his hand had turned blue because his father had tied it too tightly. When the child’s hand did not get better, they took him to the hospital where the doctors determined that the child’s hand had to be amputated.
They returned to their miserable home a few days later. The child looked up at his father and said: “Daddy, give me my hand back, and I promise I will never damage the furniture ever again.”
All the child had wanted was his father’s attention.
Prisons are designed to demolish the ego. An inmate becomes a mere number whose unique individual identity is stripped away. Prisons are deliberately set up to cause psychological debasement. In many of the world’s prisons, inmates are commonly told that they are worthless animals and that nobody on the outside cares about their existence. A man is often told that his wife is going to divorce them and that his children are ashamed to be identified with their inmate father.
Malika Oufkir describes some of these experiences in her autobiographical work Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail. Indeed, some prisons in Arab countries are the worst in the world when it comes to destroying human dignity and violating prisoners’ rights.
Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl developed a system for people to maintain their human dignity and preserve meaning in their lives under the most trying circumstances. His work stemmed from his personal experience as a victim of Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. His approach is called logotherapy, which focuses on the search for meaning.
In spite of having lost everything he had and then enduring starvation, violence, and the fear of death at any moment, he found that his life deserved to be lived. He wrote From Death-Camp to Existentialism, (later retitled Man’s Search for Meaning), and later on other worlds including The Will to Meaning.
It entails courage and confidence in confronting pain.
When people are asked why they live their lives, they respond with answers like:
“…for the sake of my children who need me to bring them up.”
“…for the sake of my friend who needs my support.”
“…for the sake of my work which needs getting done.”
“…for the sake of the political movement that needs to prevail.”
All of these answers convey the idea that someone or something depends on our individual existence. The essence of logotherapy lies in this idea.
Life needs purpose, even a small purpose, or it becomes a great prison.
Governments and religious authorities overextend themselves when they encroach on matters that are specific and personal and try to impose their will over people’s dreams and aspirations. In doing so, they try to turn society into a factory for human drones without any diversity or individual spirit.
Whenever the human ego is subjected to physically and emotionally abusive restrictions, people become more likely to engage in deviant or criminal behaviour to realise what they perceive to be their rights. It is as if they are saying: “I want to affirm that I exist” or: “I am not without value.”
The crushed ego has a tendency to project its mistakes onto others, as if it takes delight in its own obscurity. If it cannot achieve positive recognition, it will seek out negative recognition. The ego finds itself caught in a conflict between political despotism, societal restrictions, or a domineering family on the one hand and its legitimate and natural aspirations.