The Natural Man and the Three Parts of Me

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

Mosiah 3:19 For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be forever and ever.  

Period.  For some reason the rest of the scripture didn’t seem to matter much.  The enemy must be annihilated, obliterated, and completely destroyed.  Right?  Isn’t that what you do with enemies?  The enemy of God must be completely and utterly defeated.  That was what I believed until my life came apart.  Now I see that there is a comma at the end of that phrase “forever and ever.”  There is a comma, and the words after it contradict my original interpretation.

In counseling, college classes, and personal reading, I’ve learned that very smart people have theorized about the natural man in social science.  There is the theory of the Id, the ego, and the superego that Sigmund Freud used to explain the conflict between conscious and subconscious impulses.  If I think of the natural man as split into these three parts, a lot of things make sense.  The id is the base instinct of man.  Think Tarzan.  No civilization, no manners, no concept of anything other than the drive for food and maybe for sex.  When I first learned the theory, I thought the Id was the natural man.  He is only a part.  He’s a rather pathetic character wholly ill equipped to survive in a social system.  Much more problematic is the superego.

The superego at first glance seems to be a much better character than his Id brother.  He wants to achieve.  The superego doesn’t want to sleep, eat, or do anything that might interrupt his drive for excellence.  To the superego, second place is the first loser.  To the superego, the drive for power is paramount.  The superego isn’t content with a hot fudge sundae, he wants to own the shop.  He doesn’t have time or patience for the Id who is an embarrassment to him.

The ego, much maligned in colloquial terms, is a more likeable character than his counterparts.  He is the pragmatist.  He is the one who tells the superego to chill out when he insists that he can run five miles in the morning, work all day, take classes in the evening, and then stay up all night studying.  The ego tells the Id that eating that second box of Oreos is a bad idea.  The ego has a tough job; somewhat like the exhausted mom wrangling two brothers determined to fight.  (Yes, I speak from experience here.)

Most of the child rearing in a society is consumed with subverting the Id.  The job of a caregiver is to provide the child with a superego and later with an ego.  Sometimes, as was the case in my childhood, the superego was encouraged and enlarged and the Id was shamed and banished.  The ego I formed was somewhat like a parent who shows blatant favoritism toward one of her children over the others.  The superego was the favorite and the Id was the red-headed stepchild.

So what is wrong with that situation?  Why shouldn’t a parent want their child to achieve?  Why shouldn’t that drive for perfection be encouraged?  Doesn’t that drive lead to success and happiness?  I think the facts speak for themselves when it comes to my life.    

An unrestrained superego leads to resentment, stress, and chronic health problems.  If someone has an unrestrained Id, society will step in.  Schools, jails, and social punishment will likely correct such a problem.  What about an unrestrained superego?  You will be hard pressed to find a teacher who criticises a student for trying too hard, caring too much, or being too conscientious.  Unfortunately, an unrestrained superego leads to misery with no apparent cause.  A superego driven person can achieve incredible things, have a beautiful life with everything anyone could ask for, and it will never be enough.  There will always be someone with more or some greater achievement to reach.  The unrestrained superego is never satisfied and endlessly full of entitlement.  When failure comes, as it always does, the superego cannot process it.  The rage of an out of control superego is incandescent.  He will take out his rage on whomever he deems responsible for the failure.  If he can find no one, or it is considered unacceptable to blame another, the ego and the id will take the blunt of his fury.

“I could have won the state championship if it hadn’t been for that idiot on my team who missed the final shot!”  “I could have gotten an A in that class if I had stayed up every night all night like I wanted to!  Why am I so lazy?”  “I could have been the CEO of this company if I had just tried harder!  What the heck is wrong with me?”  These are all the rantings of the bloated superego, convinced of his own omniscience and consumed with the belief that all things are within his personal control.

There are two problems with the super ego and the reasons why I believe him to be the more problematic part of the natural man rather than the humble and much abused Id.  First, the super ego has a warped sense of what perfection is.  Second, the super ego doesn’t want or think he needs a Savior.

First, the super ego has a warped sense of what perfection is that is based mostly on the  values adopted in childhood in the family of origin.  If his parents praised and idolized a pop star, the super ego will value pop music.  Even if the child is a genius at the piano, the superego may forever wish he had a different set of talents that had enabled him to sing with weird hair and strobe lights in front of a crowd of stoned fans.  If a child is raised in a family that shames nerds who love science and school, he may refuse to develop his intellectual gifts thanks to a warped superego who believes such gifts are worthless.  The superego believes that his perception of perfection is reality, but it isn’t.  It is the vain ambition of man, blind and doomed to fall into the ditch.  Rather than reflect on the values instilled in him in childhood, rather than question the validity of his own assumptions and perception, the super ego steams ahead into the folly of his own immature and unrealistic expectations into the failure he so desperately wants to avoid.

Second, the super ego has no need for or desire to have a Savior.  He cringes at the thought of God’s first born son.  Why wasn’t he the favored one?  He wants to prove that he can achieve just as well as that humble son of God who gave his life for us.  “It isn’t so hard to live a sinless life!” he reasons.  When he does sin, as he inevitably will, he can justify his behavior and insist that next time, he won’t fail.  And he does fail.  Again.  Whether or not he will humble himself depends on how robust his super ego is.  How adept is he at rationalization, at blaming others, at shaming the other parts of himself?  How resistant is he to self reflection?  How long before he realizes that he isn’t in control?  That he doesn’t have all the answers?  That he needs help?

That is when I finally come to the other half of the natural man scripture.  …unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

It isn’t the Id, the Ego, or the Superego that saves us.  They are the warring parts within us that need to learn to love one another and live in peace.  The superego needs to see the Id as worthy of love and compassion.  The Id needs to let go of the resentment he has stored up.  The ego, the most mature and sensible of the trio, must make the choice to learn, reflect, humble himself, and adopt a more realistic view of himself and the measure of his creation.  He must entice, not force the compliance of his other parts.  He must allow the spirit to enlighten the mind and enlarge the experience.  Only then can the natural man become a friend to God.

So what can I take away from this?  As a parent?  As someone who is learning to love herself?  As a person who wants to become more like the Savior?  As a parent, I can see my sons as having three parts to their natural men.  The key to effective parenting isn’t to drive my children to achievement, but to help those boys create harmony and cooperation between their three parts.  I will model self reflection and personal growth and change.  I can confess my sins before my children and share my gratitude for a Savior who shows me a better way.  When my superego screams at me that, “When there’s no pain, there’s no gain,” I can pat him on the head and eat an Oreo.  I can also recognize that I have ego needs.  Sometimes I need to post that humble brag on Facebook.  Sometimes I need to celebrate my achievements and give myself a pat on the back for the extra effort I made.  In the end, if I am going to be saved, it will be all of me.  All three parts.

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