Last Friday, the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest regions of the country experienced severe heat, severe thunderstorms, and high winds. The storms knocked out power to millions of people from Maryland to Illinois. The hardships continue this week as millions remain without power.
When the storms first struck, while millions were dealing with oppressive heat and no power, in other neighborhoods the power stayed on but streaming Netflix was temporarily unavailable. Were those with power able to put their good fortune in proper perspective? Did they think about checking on their elderly neighbors who might be in considerable distress? Of course, many did. Others who had power were more concerned that their streaming Netflix was not available. Everything good is down’ — storm knocks Netflix, Instagram offline screamed the headline on MSNBC. The Baltimore Sun weighed in with Instagram, Netflix, and Pinterest all go down at once: Apocalypse to follow?
Those news stories were somewhat tongue-in-cheek; but clearly some who had power, but no Netflix, were seemingly incapable of using the opportunity to check on their neighbors, read a book, play a board game, or simply converse with family and friends.
As often happens with power outages, you may have power but your neighbor down the street doesn’t. “Life is good … for me. Lights, AC, TV, Computer, Internet, Phone … all the modern comforts of home in other words. Four houses away … well, I hope they stocked up on some camping supplies,” said a homeowner from Ohio. His neighbor expected to be without power until July 5.
If I simply wagged my finger at this boorish behavior I would miss an opportunity to reflect on my often boorish behavior. We all share the mindset of those who complain about life without Netflix or who gloated that they have power. We may not act out this mindset in the same way, but we share it nevertheless. This is the mindset of seeing the world through the eyes of “ME.”
In my book The Inner-Work of Leadership I put it this way.
In the 1980s, comedian and now Senator, Al Franken had a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live. The skit was called the “Al Franken Decade,” and the punch line went something like this: “Whenever you do anything, always ask, ‘How does this affect Al Franken?’”
We laughed knowingly with Al Franken. We study history and mock the ancients who thought Earth was the center of the universe. Then we repeat the error, thinking everything revolves around us. Our ego mind is active all day with thoughts of who we like, with whom we are angry, what we are anxious about, what we need, or what we should avoid. Most of these thoughts are fragments, some come back over the day, and some persist over a lifetime. We form our identity around these thoughts.
Just who do we think we are? Most of us make a fundamental error: We take our thoughts to be who we are. We are lost in a mistaken identity. This mistaken identity is our ego.
This mistaken identity called our ego—the voice of ME—can be pretty nasty and vicious. It is easy to point the finger at those complaining about life without Netflix; it is harder to look at our own petty selfishness. Perhaps we, for example, complained to the ticket agent about our flight being delayed for an hour on a day that many flights were canceled and other travelers were stranded overnight. Perhaps a friend or a family member needed a kind word and we were too wrapped up in our own personal drama to notice.
The truth is our ego likes conflict, it likes drama. The truth is that our ego could care less if our neighbor is out of power. We may be quite polished in conveying sincerity; but in truth, our ego—our wrong mind—only cares about itself. To the extent it cares about others, it only “cares” that others do what our ego wants them to do.
See if you can catch the little voice in your head that evaluates others in terms of how well they meet your needs. See if you can catch the little voice in your head that is titillated by tales of disaster. That is your ego. That is the voice of ME. Nobody’s ego is very nice; and my ego or your ego is no nicer than those who complained about life without Netflix.
When my twins were four years old, one of their favorite books was Children of the Noisy Village. The book tells of one summer in the lives of Swedish children in a small farm community. The story is unusual in that there is no enduring conflict, no tragedy, no hardship, no mystery; the children just play together over the course of one summer.
My late aunt was visiting one Thanksgiving when we rented the video of Children of the Noisy Village. Faithful to the book, “the summer” moved leisurely along. Puzzled, my aunt exclaimed in frustration, “Where’s the plot? Why isn’t anything happening? This isn’t about anything!” Meanwhile, our children, completely absorbed, sat in rapt attention.
On that Thanksgiving weekend over thirteen years ago, my aunt was genuinely bewildered: she was sure that conflict made for a good movie. She didn’t question her thinking, and she couldn’t understand why anybody would enjoy a movie about a “noisy village”.
At the time, I was amused by my aunt’s comments; but my state-of-mind is different from hers only in degree. When we’re in our ego state of mind, when we are lost in the story of ME, we naturally look for conflict. Conflicts in our stories are backdrops for defining our character, our part in the play. A story with no conflict threatens our ego identity; by engaging conflict we develop and defend our personal identity.
We live in an era where our civil liberties are disappearing at an alarming rate. Yet each time we turn to our ME voice for guidance, we erode our freedom to act in a way that is genuinely conducive to our own welfare. Boorish selfishness drowns out the voice of wisdom, the voice of love, the voice of true freedom that is our birthright.
The good news is we have an alternative; we can turn away from the dictates of our destructive ME voice. Freedom from ME begins when we are willing to look at our ego with awareness of its viciousness.