Cerberus is a blog series. To start reading from the beginning, click here.

Cerberus egos are not born but made. They are emotionally undernourished, damaged selves. We who have these kinds of ego systems are selves who were not born poorly, but selves who were raised poorly. And quite often, we were raised by highly intelligent parents who attended to reason but not feelings. They ignored what we felt and as a result decimated our emotional integrity and wellbeing. We then, as decimated selves, decimate the wellbeing of others using reason, bullying tactics, and if all else fails, Uzis.

Neuropsychologists Darcia Narvaez and Tracy Gleason in their essay “Developmental Optimization,” give us a vivid picture of what the damage to our emotional life entails:

Good caregiving and social support foster the positive social emotions (care, play, joy in relationship, empathy) and the regular and deep social pleasures found among hunter-gatherers would facilitate the right brain and the engagement ethic. 

Many modern Western societies have eliminated the supports for virtue development that our ancestors experienced at all ages…. In the USA, social supports have been decreasing among all age groups for over 50 years. With neglectful or harmful child care now common in USA practices, the right brain and the social emotions are not cultivated with much intensity or are thwarted entirely. So the view presented here is that the USA is more likely to raise people with dispositions toward detached and vicious imagination among the privileged and wallflower or bunker mindset among the poor. These are conclusions I have drawn from looking at a range of data and findings from across disciplines. The culture influences not only childrearing practices but also moral functioning generally.

In workshops that Narvaez and I conduct together, we characterize this damaging of the brains of our children in the following way: dominant child rearing practices harm our kids’ social development; blunt their capacity to care for the natural world; and impair their emotional development and sensate intelligence. And when many of these children grow up, their damaged feelings become rooted in distrust, fear and self-protection.  

In sum, the hand that rocks the cradle shapes our brains into Cerberus egos. Cerberus egos emerge from these toxic environments as selves who slaughter to survive. Our feelings were slaughtered. We, in turn, slaughter the feelings of others, and when challenged, attack their bodies.  

The Cerberus-ego syndrome is predictable because humans are born with 75% of our brains yet to develop, as Narvaez reminds us in her essay “The Individual, Relational and Social Neurobiological Development of Morality.” If our brain were any larger, our head would be too big to pass through our mother’s birth canal: her vagina. So how the baby is nurtured, quite literally, helps or hinders brain development. Writes Narvaez: “The foundations of the brain develop in concert with care-giver treatment.” 

The hand that rocks the cradle shapes our brains into Cerberus egos. Our feelings were slaughtered. We, in turn, slaughter the feelings of others, and when challenged, attack their bodies.

This neuroscientific fact about the size of our brains when we are born means that our emotional development is conditioned. We are socially constructed beings whose memories and ideas are linked to the way we learned to affirm, set aside, and/or deny our feelings. This work must go on in our brains, as neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp shows us, because at the beginning of our lives “we are utterly dependent creatures whose survival is founded on the quality of social bonds” (Affective Neuroscience)..

Should we conclude that we are a nation of Cerberus egos? Consider the evidence. We attack nations that have not attacked us (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan). And we prepare for warfare like no other nation on earth: 

Should we conclude that we are a nation of Cerberus egos? We attack nations that have not attacked us, and we prepare for warfare like no other nation on earth.

Cerberus egos try to gun down what has already decimated them. We target others  to try to prevent in the future what has already happened to us in the past: we were decimated by the people who were supposed to protect us. We thus have bunker mentalities as survivors. We are primed to attack anyone or anything that disturbs our fortified, guarded selves. We make pre-emptive strikes.  Our feelings of safety, compassion, empathy, and caring are holdup in hell. These feelings of the True Self are guarded without compassion by the hound from hell. Cerberus is a slaughter beast. So, too, is the Cerberus ego.

We must rescue souls hold up in hell to stop the slaughter. Martin Luther King, Jr. called such work revolutionary in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? because it “lifts neighborly concerns beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation [to create] an all-embracing and unconditional love for all.” It racks focus from Cerberus egos to the True Self. This revolutionary turn by Dr. King racks focus to love, namely, to the supreme unifying principle of life: “agape,” with its Greek root idea meaning to welcome, to be open-hearted. 

This kind of love, Dr. King argued, “unlocks the door [that] leads to ultimate reality because it re-orders our heads and our hearts.” Dr. King, in effect, had moved beyond anti-racism campaigns as a singular issue and now called for unconditional love: love beyond belief. 

When Dr. King looked beyond race issues, he saw human suffering across the face of humanity and vowed never to treat white racism and white supremacy as standalone issues again. He made this announcement in his April 4, 1967, speech in Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” 

The Riverside speech was Dr. King’s eulogy for white racism as a stand-alone problem. He reached past Cerberus to retrieve the kill: the damned, the love trapped in hell. Dr. King promised to “never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” Whites as well as blacks and browns and others were now deemed race victims of white America. 

The Riverside speech was Dr. King’s eulogy for white racism as a stand-alone problem.

The framework for Dr. King’s new trifocal agenda against racism, extreme materialism, and militarism was America’s Vietnam War. In his speech, Dr. King compared America’s actions in the war with those of the Nazis in World War II. What do Vietnam peasants think of us, Dr. King demanded, “as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicines and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?” His question was rhetorical.

Countless white and black leaders, pundits, and journalists backed away from his new trifocal framework, his rack-focus lens for new Civil Rights work. Author David J. Garrow described what happened next, in his April 4, 2017 New York Times’ Op-Ed essay on Dr. King’s speech:

The Riverside crowd gave Dr. King a standing ovation, but editorial denunciations were swift and harsh. The Washington Post criticized his “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy” and lamented how “many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence.”

The New York Times called Dr. King’s remarks both “facile” and “slander.” It said the moral issues in Vietnam “are less clear-cut than he suggests” and warned that “to divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating,” given how the movement needed to confront what the paper called “the intractability of slum mores and habits.”

Even some of the black press lined up against him: The Pittsburgh Courier warned that Dr. King was “tragically misleading” African-Americans on issues that were “too complex for simple debate.”

Dr. King’s agenda is still a “new” call for moderates, liberals, and progressives who have not yet racked focus and discerned in whites their slaughtered feelings protected by the hound from hell. 

White racists in Dr. King’s scenario are the prey of their own Cerberus egos. Dr. King called upon all of us to attend to the white prey in order to end white racism in America.

A story recounted by Lillian Smith in Killers of the Dream, her autobiographical account of Southern life, illustrates the point.  

Born in 1897 into an upper class white American family in Georgia, Lillian Smith recounts the story of a little girl named Jamie whom her family adopted and then abandoned when they discovered that Jamie, a fair-skinned white child, was actually black. 

Lillian recalls her initial thoughts and feelings about what her parents had done:

I knew my father and mother whom I passionately admired had betrayed something which they held dear.  And they could not help doing it.  And I was shamed by their failure and frightened, for I felt they were no longer as powerful as I had thought.  There was something Out There that was stronger than they and I could not bear to believe it.  I could not confess that my father, who always solved the family dilemmas easily and with laughter, could not solve this.  I knew that my mother who was so good to children did not believe in her heart that she was being good to this child.  There was not a word in my mind that said it but my body knew and my glands, and I was filled with anxiety.

This kind of anxiety recounted by Lillian Smith is similar to the tensions that fill the race workshops I conduct around the country. The stories revealed by white participants unnerve them because the shattered feelings of their shattered childhood are uncovered and on full display. They see how the broken pieces of a broken self were pieced together to carry on a shattering tradition. Lillian Smith describes how she became part of this tradition: 

I felt compelled to believe they were right. It was the only way my world would be held together.  And, slowly, it began to seep through me: I was white.  She was colored.  We must not be together.  It was bad to be together.  Though you ate with your nurse when you were little, it was bad to eat with any colored person after that.  It was bad just as other things were bad that your mother had told you.  It was bad that she was to sleep in the room with me that night.  It was bad . . .

This shift in feeling from condemnation of her parents’ behavior to self-condemnation of her own feelings for differing from theirs is easily understood when we remember that children are hard-wired to adapt themselves emotionally to their parents’ values and needs in order to survive and flourish. 

The interpersonal circumstances between parent and child—not racist sentiment—forced Lillian Smith to numb, dismember, and finally disown the original parent-condemning parts of her own feelings that didn’t fit into the honor code of her family’s brigade. She had to buckle up by tamping down her own original feelings. 

This kind of tamping down work is the work of Cerberus. 

If the rules of her home life were challenged, Lillian Smith would have to confront her extreme disappointment in her parents and her fear that they could not protect her. These feelings were too big to know for the child so Cerberus carted them off to hell. 

What remained was Lillian Smith’s Cerberus ego, now as rule maker of and for white racism and white supremacy. Her Cerberus ego would not just attack blacks, but also attack the feelings of Lillian that damned her parents for their cruel treatment of the colored child. These original feelings of compassion and love were now prime Cerberus prey because her conscience was now the hound from hell.

The origin of Lillian Smith’s white racist sentiments against colored people, in sum, wasn’t racism, it was fear, distress and upset wrought in her by the behavior of her parents. The origin of her white racism was her own emotional duress that became a Cerberus ego-system.

White racism is a Cerberus ego-system. One of racism’s major rules as an ego system is to attack every feeling and every person that could reveal its origin: the attack against feelings of love and compassion by the person’s own kith and kin. This ego-system preys on emotionally damaged souls who feel at extreme risk in their own families, communities, and nation. Cerberus preys on emotionally damaged souls. Cerberus does not have a drop of compassion in him.  Attack him as a white racist and he responds like a hound from hell.

Racism cannot be ended by making racists feel bad and wrong. Cerberus egos feed on such feelings as the raw meat of their prey. Racism will end when the damned feelings of love and compassion are freed from hell.

Black lives never mattered in America. Today, more and more whites are discovering that their lives don’t matter either. This racial discovery is not enough to kill them. But add to this insight the plethora of social costs and job-related problems they now face and watch their racialized white lives become the last straw, the almost-weightless thing that breaks their backs, crushes their spirits, and kills them.

Racism cannot be ended by making racists feel bad and wrong. Racism will end when the damned feelings of love and compassion are freed from hell.

As Princeton University economist Anne Case told The Washington Post in 2016, the rising rate of white suicides is not caused by America’s elites, but by downtrodden and rural whites: “They may be privileged by the color of their skin, but that is the only way in their lives they’ve ever been privileged.” 

Case’s calculation of white privilege can be reduced to a paradoxical rule: The demand for white privilege in America is on the rise because the movement toward “white supremacy” increases as the actual feeling of white adequacy decreases. 

I call this rule the Cerberus Law of White Racism because racist energy is derived from what got lost. The racist system feeds on a lost personal sense of love and compassion, care and safety, well-being and joy. It preys on these losses, which fuel the attacks on anyone who represents the losses. Cerberus kills the feelings that keep him alive. He slaughters compassion to protect it. He damns love to save it and sunders hearts to split off the pain. The Cerberus ego becomes a white racist to terrorize its own feelings so the loss of love, compassion, empathy, and caring can’t be felt. It’s a terror-regime, a punishing regime meted out by the hound from hell.

The racist system feeds on a lost personal sense of love and compassion, care and safety, well-being and joy.

Inattention to the personal terror experienced by whites has rendered white racism in America an intractable mental, physical, and emotional disorder. As investigative reporter Joel Dyer rightly notes in his book, Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning, in the extreme form of this harrowing mental condition, many whites lose touch with reality and are no longer in control of their actions. They have psychotic breaks generating the rise of white terrorists, white militia, Christian Identity white-theocracy movements in rural and rustbelt America: “Their potential for anger- and paranoia-induced violence is immeasurable [and] there are only a few things that can help when people reach this stage: They can get help, they can turn their anger inward and commit suicide; or they can turn it outward on the rest of us [igniting] a long and bloody period of psychotic discontent.” 

Cerberus is the hound of these psychotic discontents. He is their anger and rage and embodies their discontents. He kills anyone who gets in his way. He massacres his kills.

Every ego in America is or has a Cerberus formation, a self-defense system that can slaughter its prey. “Ego-cide” in this scenario can not only feel like suicide, but it can also feel like blasphemy, namely, an attack against God. Cerberus, after all, acts like a son of God, a heavenly host sent by God from on high and planted in the human soul as its conscience. To transform a Cerberus-ego means that the feelings of love and compassion confined in hell must be found, reaffirmed, and freed.

This kind of redemptive work cannot be accomplished alone because human salvation is not a solo act. We were not broken alone and we cannot heal without the sustaining support of other persons. 

So if persons tell you they know pain, loneliness, loss, fear, and dismay, but do not know the feeling of being sustained by a love that is wider, deeper, and infinitely vaster than their sorrows, hear those words as a True Self commission.

This redemptive work cannot be accomplished alone because human salvation is not a solo act.

Hear your True Self commission to love, to create community, and to heal. One at a time in personal relationships, ten at a time in love beyond belief small groups, hundreds at a time in congregations, hundreds of thousands at a time in social-justice  and eco-justice movements, millions at a time as we take this commission of the True Self deeper and deeper into humanity’s heart as a justice-loving people who will transform the world.


Appendix A, Cerberus and the Current Unitarian Universalist Racial Crisis >


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