In this post, I had intended simply to relate a significant high school incident that served to give me an understanding of my real power as an individual, that being the power of choice. Now, I don’t want to embark on a deep philosophical or psychological discussion of conscience and ego, but those aspects were key to my understanding of what was going on with me at the time of that incident, and so I need to explain some about those aspects, where my discovery is concerned, and also furnish an excerpt from the memoir.
We sometimes hear advice such as “let your conscience be your guide.” This precept appeals to our moral sense of right and wrong, and we are wise to adhere to it. Where does conscience come from? Perhaps it is instinctual, but parents and teachers also tell us what is right and wrong. We are rewarded when we are on the right path, and we are chided or punished when we do the wrong thing. I believe that ego plays a role in this choice-making, for if I decide to do a wrong thing but am not scolded for it, then my ego says, “See? You got what you wanted, so it’s okay to do it again.” This is what I call the “false-self ego.”
One of my first meaningful encounters with false-self ego occurred in high school, during a conflict over class scheduling with my counselor. Then, I didn’t know I was dueling with my ego and ignoring my conscience, but that’s what was happening. My conversations with Mrs. James, my counselor, and high school principal Mr. Nicholson are too long to include in this post, but I’ll summarize them and then share two paragraphs that follow the incident.
Summary: I had missed the deadline for adding and dropping classes. I got angry with Mrs. James for refusing to meet my drop-add demands (I thought I could out-shout her to get my way). She sent me to the principal, Mr. Nicholson, and I fully expected him to suspend me. He listened to my version of what had happened and then told me that some of my teachers thought I had a lot of potential. He’d heard some about my upbringing and said he wanted to help. He advised that I apologize to Mrs. James, in spite of my contrary feeling, and he asked me to promise that I would. I did apologize to her and darned if she didn’t wind up making the changes I’d requested.
That night, I thought about Mr. Nicholson, how, when I’d entered his office, I’d expected to be chewed out for my poor decision; instead, the first thing he’d done was to pay me a compliment. I imagined how my father would’ve handled the situation, especially had he been drinking. He would have been angry with me, which would have only raised my ire, and I’m sure we would have shouted at one another, and then I would’ve marched out and gotten as far from him as possible. But here I had insulted one of Mr. Nicholson’s teachers, and the first thing he did was to compliment me. I recalled how elevated I’d felt, not to mention surprised, and how that had made it easier to listen to his suggestions. He respected me for who I was and for the person he believed I would become, as though he had a crystal ball and could read my future when I couldn’t. No one had treated me with that type of respect before, and his action gave me a sense of how the world ought to work. Then, with an internal flash of light and a chill that ran down my spine, it occurred to me that the winner of a shouting contest is the biggest loser. In my mind’s eye, I saw the many masks worn by my father. I heard him shouting at me in order to manipulate and wear me down, and I understood that his shouts were masks of lies. And I thought the only thing won by out-shouting another person is a reprieve from the truth.
It was as though that flash of light had revealed my dad’s lies. I saw the cover-ups, the manipulations, the many masks he had worn through the years to hide unmet responsibilities, masks that were never taken off but only added to, layer upon layer. I felt the weight of discovering a lost archaeological site, and I knew it would take a long time to dig out from under that stratum of deceit. I would have to do the digging, I realized, for although my dad had created the mess, I was buried under it. I did not fully understand how this glimpse might lead me to a potentially different future, but I recognized that here was a chance to begin digging out from the debris.
–excerpt from “Fitting In,” Security Bound (first draft)
By appealing to my primitive instincts of manipulation and deception, false-self ego tricked me into believing that I could control another person, that feeling sorry for myself or yelling louder than Mrs. James would somehow make me more powerful. What I took away from that encounter was the knowledge of how truly powerful I became by choosing to make things right with my counselor. By the way, she and I became good friends.
Ego as false self is so very sly. It is not always easy to recognize when it takes over. It will seep through every vulnerable crack, no matter how slight, and so I must guard against its strange and manipulative power. I constantly have to remind myself that if I am slow to recognize this trickster or too quick to take its bait, I am caught in its trap. The trick to play back on false-self ego is to at once see it for what it is and then disregard it.
Over time, it has become easier to know the difference between false-self ego and “confidence-builder ego.” As a writer and musician, I do need genuine pats on the back from fellow writers and mentors–they are reassuring gestures letting me know when I’m on the right track. That’s building my confidence.
Simply recognizing false-self ego for what it is sort of takes the wind out of its sails and makes it easier to distinguish between it and confidence-builder ego. Power of choice is best exemplified when selfishness is out-dueled by selflessness. Conscience helps me to know the difference.