Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

  IN A PERFECT WORLD

 

No Other Agenda

Here’s the scene: someone with a tendency toward criticalness decides to criticize you. This turns out to be no light, casual rebuke. It’s a full-blown barrage of well-chosen words, all of them aimed at one of your personal faults or weaknesses. Every sentence quivers with reproach. Every syllable hurts.

How do you react?

You might get angry. Resentfully, you may ask yourself, “Where does she come off criticizing me? How dare she!” Your indignation soothes some of the pain of being put through the wringer. Your fury burns away whatever content may have been worth listening to. In your anger, you dispose of the rebuker and the rebuke in one fell swoop.

Or you might feel downhearted. “She thinks so poorly of me. She doesn’t even like me. I’m worthless…” Your reaction focuses on the question of whether or not you are a likeable person. It wonders about the criticizer’s whole opinion of you as a human being. The social/emotional component of the situation fuels your depression so that, once again, the actual message is lost is the mists of pain and self-pity.

There is another reaction worth describing, but we’ll save that for later. Right now, let’s move on to a different scenario.

Someone with a penchant for power tries to get you to do something you have little inclination for doing. They turn on the full force of their personality, determined to bend you to their will. How do you react?

You may simply buckle under, on the grounds that it’s easier to do what the person wants than to resist such an overwhelming force or try to argue it away.

Alternatively, you may retreat to a bulwark of anger, muttering to yourself and those close to you about this abuse of power. You may fall back into the same wallow of insecurity and social angst that we described above. Then again, you may come back swinging, on the principle that overwhelming force ought to be met with even greater force.

There is another reaction. A much better one. We’ll get to it soon.

In any encounter, any interaction, any relationship, there are things that we want or need. And it is the ego that sets the criteria for these wants or needs. The ego has its own agenda, and having that agenda thwarted underlies the pain, angst, and anger that we described above.

To use our examples:

When someone whose opinion you care about criticizes you, you may feel either outraged or depressed because your agenda is to have the other person like and respect you. You translate the criticism into a statement broadcasting the fact that you are neither liked nor respected. That hurts. It also makes it virtually impossible for you to absorb the content of the rebuke. Your ego is too busy licking its wounds to lend an ear as to how you might actually improve yourself.

If someone tries to strong-arm you into doing something you don’t want to do, your ego again makes its calculations based on its own agenda. If its goal is to be liked and accepted, it may tell you to give in and do whatever the person wants. If its goal is to be superior to the other person, it may prompt you to react with rage and resistance.

Whenever you come to the table in a state of needing or wanting, you are immediately in a weaker position. That is, you are not in a good position to react properly. The ego’s agenda jumps in to mask the issue at hand. Emotions rise up like an obscuring fog. A smokescreen of anger, resentment, sadness, insecurity, indignation and/or competitiveness renders you oblivious to the rights and wrongs of the case.

Because the ego so desperately wants the other person to think well of you, to like you, to respect you, and/or to admit your superiority, its pressing needs cloud the issue under discussion. And it may be an important one.

What we should be asking ourselves when subject to criticism—and would be, were it not for our ego and its insistent claims—is this: is she saying something that I should listen to? Regardless of whatever pain her message may arouse in me, is there a truth here? Is she pointing out a way for me to improve in ways that are consistent with my own goals?

Or, in our second scenario: is whatever he’s trying to get me to do consistent with my values? Regardless of whether or not I’m liked or respected or looked up to, there is a fundamental truth in every situation that cannot be ignored. And it’s our job to detach ourselves from our clamoring egos long enough to pay attention to it.

Because there is no more important agenda than emes. And no greater tool than emes for fixing what is wrong with us.

 

No Room for Ego

The opposite of being ego-driven is being humble. Moshe Rabbeinu was a very powerful person, and at the same time the humblest man in history. How does that work?

As a vessel for carrying out Hashem’s will, there was simply no room for ego. There is no place for “I want” or “I need” when you’re serving as a messenger for the Creator of the universe. He saw everything in terms of carrying out the will of Hakadosh Boruch Hu… which basically demolished the claims of his self-centered human ego.

On our own levels and under our own circumstances, we are called upon to do the same. When someone offers rebuke, we need to push aside our instinctive emotional reaction and turn on our minds instead. We need to silence our ego’s agenda long enough to let us hear the message and assess its validity. We must ask ourselves: Is she saying something true about me?

If we decide that there is no truth in what she said, then it needn’t bother us. But if there is truth here, then, all feelings aside, I am called upon to change and improve. However much it may hurt to hear about my failings, the criticizer is just the messenger who brought it to my attention.

The truth supersedes my ego’s desire to be liked and respected. It supersedes my ego’s agenda. When it comes to emes, there can be no other agenda.

The same holds true when someone tries to convince you to act in a way that you’re not sure of. Instead of getting all tangled up in our need to be on their good side, our fear of losing prestige, our desire to be admired, or any other ego demand, we have to step back and examine the truth of the matter dispassionately. Objectively.

This doesn’t mean turning into a cold, bloodless machine. What it does mean is that I must disassociate myself from my needy ego, and the emotions it generates, long enough to objectively consider the rights and wrongs of the issue at hand. Based on my values and the way I am committed to living my life, is this a good thing for me to do? Is it consistent with the truth that underlies my deepest self? That’s all that matters.

Of course, relationships are important. Of course, wanting to be liked and respected is natural. These are genuine human needs. But they don’t trump emes. Nothing can do that.

And it’s our job to train our fragile egos to step back long enough to let us discover what the emes is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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