The Ego, the Tribe, and the World: How Our Development Changes Over Time


As we progress in our development as individuals and cultures, it’s important to note from where those tendencies on which we act come from, and for what reasons. I’m talking about human development; the type of development we all go through no matter what country, class, or ethnicity. The skeletal ideas for this post come from A Brief History of Everything by Kevin Wilbur.

There are essentially four stages of development. The egocentric, tribalcentric, worldcentric, and Kosmocentric. I won’t be going into Kosmoentric simply because covering the first three will take enough time.

                                      The Ego

So Egocentric; it seems easy enough. This phase lasts from, I’m going to say, ages zero to as late as ten. It is during this phase that we as little humans become aware of ourselves as individuals and develop a sense of self. Now, this sense of “self” is incredibly limited, because this “self” acknowledges almost no one outside of itself. It is during this phase we hopefully begin to understand the idea of self-esteem.

Do you remember when your parents would play games with you and let you win? (You didn’t know this at the time.) Somehow, you were the best at playing Connect Four and always beat your parent, or maybe you did a finger painting and the work you produced was hailed as a masterpiece and hung on the refrigerator. This was your parents communicating to you that you can do it! To build in you the confidence to believe in yourself so when you encounter struggle, you are hopefully grounded in the belief in yourself.

                                     The Tribe

But at some point, you reach an age when the self is not the only consideration. This is where you enter the tribalcentric phase. There is, of course, no clear moment when this shift occurs, but gradually over time, you are introduced to the idea that it’s not all about you. Your parents are again the ones who generally bring this idea forth, particularly in ways such as having you begin to participate in chores around the house like helping with dishes, taking out the trash, and picking up the dog poop in the backyard. It’s the idea that you are now contributing to something bigger than yourself, to the greater good. You may not want to take out the trash, but by doing so you will benefit the tribe, and in the best case scenarios, you will receive gratitude or some other kind of desirable benefit for having done so.

It’s the idea that you are now contributing to something bigger than yourself, to the greater good.

Eventually, as you enter your pre-teens and teens you encounter a number of tribes of which you may become a member. These tribes could be athletics, clubs, religion, academics, extended family, gangs, a fan of a sports team, etc. Confusingly, you may be a part of many tribes at the same time, such as you play baseball but you are also a part of a Christian youth group. This is difficult to manage because allegiance to the tribe is paramount. Tribes have a number of different membership qualifications that must be maintained in order to stay in good standing. Often these qualifications are in conflict with qualifications of other tribes to which you might belong. Being that exile from a tribe can be traumatic, a person struggles to manage all these different qualifiers, which might be just as miserable as being exiled.

Along with the stress of learning to balance multiple tribes, another tension is created simply by entering a tribe, because in doing so, you must to some degree let go of the ego. The idea that you serve something greater than yourself means by default that you no longer totally serve yourself, but the ego only wants to serve itself, which is where the tension arises. But at the same time the ego is also fragile and wants to belong, so it becomes a balancing act between serving the tribe and serving oneself; between tribal identity and personal identity.

Obviously, a negative that can result from the tribal phase is that the tribe becomes everything and in order to feel loved and validated, a person might do anything to maintain their membership in the tribe, or blindly follow the tribe’s ideology and dismiss any counter-arguments. This can result in horrific tragedies which segways into the next phase, worldcentric.

                                  The World

Again, at some ill-defined phase in a person’s growth, but probably in the late teens or early twenties, a person becomes acutely aware that there are other tribes wildly different than their own or those near them. It is the realization that there is a much bigger world around them than they once perceived or imagined. This is the worldcentric phase, that you realize that what you’ve been living in is a fishbowl and there’s an entire ocean out there. How a person reacts to this phase can vary widely. Many questions arise from this realization such as, what should I do with this new knowledge? how should I (ego) and my tribe treat this other tribe? Are we to be a blessing to them and show them generosity and favor, or are we to reject them? And how will my decision impact my standing within my own tribe? And how might that impact my ego?

that you realize that what you’ve been living in is a fishbowl and there’s an entire ocean out there.

What all this does is force a person to compare, which usually comes by way of holding up the unknown tribe to the membership qualifications they are familiar with in their own tribe. A person might find this interesting and thought-provoking, or they might outright reject, vilify, and even attack the new tribe in order to maintain their worldview and power base.

A person may never move beyond their tribe and see themselves as members of a greater global tribe, or they might find value in a greater, more cosmopolitan, more inclusive tribe. Wherever a person lands, the questions asked are, what is most right? What promotes the good? Should our tribe expand to be inclusive of others, care for others, be more about them than ourselves, or should our tribe put up the walls and defend, maintaining that which is considered good? And if so, what is the result of such decisions? I’m sure you can see the tension that exists in these questions.  

So that’s in a nutshell; a very, very small nutshell. The ego wants to serve itself, the tribe wants us to serve it at the expense of our ego, and the world calls us to put aside the tribe and enter an even great understanding of human connection. Between all these lie great amounts of tension which we must learn to navigate, or else we remain a spoiled 3-year-old who pitches a fit everytime they don’t get their way, which benifits no one. 

One thought on “The Ego, the Tribe, and the World: How Our Development Changes Over Time

  1. Pingback: The Spiritual Shift in the Second Half of Life – The Curiosity Manifold

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