A pompous male turkey at Farm Sanctuary, in upstate NY.
As has become customary, Thanksgiving was spent at my sister’s house / wildlife sanctuary in the woods of Ithaca, NY. Recovering patients this year included a crippled raccoon and three flying squirrels that had been kidnapped and mauled by a cat. The latter would often escape their cage and jump around the kitchen from person to person, until they were finally recaptured.
The week was spent primarily eating far too much, as well as discovering a sanctuary for abused farm animals, and having some good times with the family. At least most of the time was ‘good times’. As is regular in many families, no holiday can be truly complete without some sort of explosive episode.
Near the end of the trip, in a rather dramatic display of frustration between two family members, one family member kicked over a table and wildly swung a laptop in the air before being restrained. Was it simply too many sugary pies? Was it an act inspired from the recently watched History Channel’s documentary on “The French Revolution”? Perhaps, but at least on the surface, the issue was that the recipient of the fury had indicated that they didn’t want to go to Sunday church, to which the other had reacted rather strongly.
As my bus back to NYC cut a curvy path through the woods of upstate NY, I considered the accusations of egoism and selfishness that had been tossed around a couple of days earlier. When such accusations are directed my way, I like to try my best not to react defensively but to objectively explore them and try to empathize with the accusatory party. Why? Stubbornness and inflexibility are weak traits – and very counter-productive to growth. I view my life as a design project and am not afraid of being wrong or not knowing something – I just try to get better with each iteration. The situation got me thinking what the ego actually is, and where the line of selfishness gets drawn.
The ego is an interesting thing and you should monitor its effect in your daily actions. I like to think of the ego as a parasite. As self awareness, thought and language emerged in human beings, so did a formless entity that constantly tries to prove its physical form through collection and display of objects. Of course we are perfectly complete beings without it but it does a pretty superb job of both convincing us that it IS us and that we’ll be far more complete with designer clothes, sexy lovers, shiny objects and in general a better set up than those around us. Now I don’t want to completely rebuke the ego – when properly handled, it can be a very useful tool to aid us along our journey. For example, being aware of your social skills, financial influence or position of power can truly help you leverage these assets into positive social action. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum that ranges from egoic freedom to egoic control but it’s crucial to acknowledge that the ego is a guest in our homes, and we’re in charge of it – not vice versa.
Inevitably the young ego leads much of our development. It’s interesting to note that my two sisters, as well as myself, have all structured our lives around giving our energy to others. One of my sisters teaches pre- and postnatal yoga, while the other rescues wild animals. I like to foster community engagement and give people the forum to shine. This is most probably a product of an emotionally charged childhood and learning from a young age to deal with highly erratic family situations. How is everyone feeling? Why can I do to help? Should I get involved or run for cover? How can I display that I’m working hard and doing a good job? Personally, I know that while much of my energy is spent creating socially beneficial opportunities, it’s also probably quite outwardly apparent how much I enjoy my life – which might appear ‘selfish’, especially to those who are less happy with their own lives.
I also always enjoy exploring the grey areas between selflessness and selfishness. On one hand part of me looks at the very make up of our beings, systems of opportunistic, mutating biological processes and I wonder if perhaps ‘being out for self’ is just built into who we are. On the other hand, exploring this more deeply, we see nature, as well as or own natural systems work in a harmony, apparently synchronized in ways that we can only comprehend in a very basic way. And so, as the ego took hold, we began to lose the ability to feel at one with the larger system and developed far less accurate methods of superficial communication to take it’s place. Of course our current existence comes with many pros and cons and while it can be blamed as the very thing that is tipping our relationship with the world around us out of balance, intelligence and logic are also tools that if used wisely, can help to get us back in balance with the system. Of course, like ego, a certain amount of selfishness is inevitable and even beneficial in our lives; after all if you cannot sustain your own existence then no matter how grand your outward efforts are – they will not be sustained.
So even if we are just scaled up versions of our own opportunistic root system, we don’t have to react blindly and emotionally as we move through life – instead we can intellectually, and experientially consider what is good for ourselves, others and the planet and act as true to that as possible. The sweet spot seems to be in learning how to create a positive impact on the planet while living an enjoyable, sustainable life in the process. It’s inevitable that along this path you will meet those who’s own personal frustrations manifest outwardly in explosions of blame or anger – but it’s important to see these projections for what they are and not to get disheartened with your progress. In fact, instead of reacting with fire, offer as much compassion as you can to whoever attacks you in order to help them out of their misery and along on their own journey.
In the late 18th century, Maximillian Robespierre had radical vision and was integral in launching the French Revolution – but by the end of his career, his ego and selfishness (which he had previously been leveraged for good) had all but consumed him, in a terrifying display of megalomaniacal control an self idolization. Eventually it got so bad that he was beheaded. In conclusion, while some level of ego and selfishness an inevitability, we must develop our awareness in order to keep ourselves and our visions in check. Perhaps then we can avoid, both personally and on a greater scale, the same metaphoric fate as Robespierre.