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In the car with my 10 yr old daughter the other day, she asked me what Ego meant, one of her vocabulary words for the week.
I laughed. “Good question, I replied. What do you think it is?”
“I wouldn’t ask if I knew, mom.”
“Well, use it in a sentence, in context. You’ve heard the word enough to have an inkling what it means. And an inkling is as close as you’re going to get to defining an abstract like Ego.”
Her brows narrowed and I could see her pondering in the rear view mirror.
“My ego got hurt when Ms Brown told me I was singing flat this morning.” She paused. “And she really said that, mom.”
“Sorry. We’ll get back to that. OK? So Ego is feelings then?”
“Well, sorta, I guess. But not exactly. It’s more like how we see ourselves. To me, I’m a good singer. You can hurt my feelings by being mean to me. But you hurt my ego when you tell me I’m not how I think I am.”
“Do you think you were flat this morning in glee?”
“Well, yeah. When I listened I wasn’t hitting the notes sometimes. I guess I’m not such a good singer.”
“Ah, but you could be, if you practiced singing. And not the perpetual humming you do, but really practiced, daily—sing along with your favorites, or sing the notes when you practice piano.” I glimpsed her rolling her eyes at my suggestions in the rear view mirror. “Being a good singer doesn’t happen inside your head. What is the only way to really get good at anything?” (One of my many canonical refrains.)
“Practice, mom.” She sighed.
I sighed. “My beautiful daughter, I think your explanation for Ego is excellent—it’s how we see ourselves. Ego is an idea, even an ideal—who we want to be, but generally are not. We are what we do, my dear” (another of my refrains). “If you want to be a good singer, you’re going to have to practice becoming one.”
“So you don’t think I’m a good singer,” she asked woefully.
“Were still talking about defining Ego here, right?”
“Yeah. And my ego says I’m a good singer now, mom. So is ego always fake, just pretend inside our heads?”
“You tell me. Do you think our ego ever gives us an accurate depiction—paints a real picture of how we operate, how we act, what we do in the real world?”
“Probably not.” She sighed again, deflated. “Just cuz you think you’re good, or talented, or special doesn’t mean you actually are to anyone besides yourself, except if you’re famous. When you’re famous, it’s not just ego, you know you’re good.”
“Really? So, there’s a famous chef, recognized for his delicious creations. As you noted, it’s not just his ego talking that’s telling him he’s a good chef. He has 1.7 million dedicated followers on Instagram. He decides to create a new dish, and serves it to five friends. And all five hate the meal. The combination of flavors tastes just terrible. So, is the guy delusional that he’s a good chef—it’s just his ego talking—or is he really good?
My daughter considered my little tale carefully before answering. “Well, if he thought of himself as a great chef with everything he made, then his delusion was that he could be good all the time, that everything he created would be a masterpiece.”
“So then, is ego ever an accurate depiction of self?”
“I guess not. Just like there is no such thing as smart, mom.” She quoted another of my canonical refrains. Her bright smile in the rear view mirror lit up my world.
My DH and I NEVER tell our kids they’re smart. In fact, when other people do, we smile politely, turn away and snicker. Our kids are consistently at the top of their classes because they work at it. A lot. There is no such thing as smart, we preach. Smart is an abstract, merely an idea, a concept, like democracy, or potential, or ego. Smart is as smart does.
It is not our potential, or what we believe, or believe in that defines us. Our ego guarantees that none of us are who we imagine ourselves to be—good or bad. Regardless of what your ego tells you, you will never be more then the choices you make and the actions those choices lead you take.
Heard a teen singing in the talent show at the Alameda County Fair last week. Her voice was one of those rare gifts, full of resonance and richness as she sang to the sparse crowd stuffing their faces with fried foods. I was walking past with my family and her voice stopped me, as it did the diners the moment she started singing. Maybe 16, in ripped jeans and a tiny t-shirt, she sat onstage and strummed her acoustic and sang like an angel, everything from Greenday to a few of her own beautifully melodic tunes. I, my kids, my DH, and the entire crowd hushed as we listened to her singing. She captivated all of us for maybe 20 minutes until her set was up. Two older teens took the stage after her, and sounded pretty much like most rockers. Everyone went on with their eating and I walked away with my family to explore the rest of the fair.
Later on at the fair I saw her walking with her family and briefly stopped her to gush over her voice, assure her of her very unique talent. Her proud mama told me her daughter plays all the time, and in fact her daughter agreed music was her passion. Her dad chimed in right then that his daughter was a diligent worker, strove for excellence in most everything she endeavored, and as good at math as at music. He proudly informed me and my family that she was slated to pursue the sciences in college, and his daughter confirmed she had plans to become a doctor.
Been thinking a lot about this girl the last few days. A voice like hers comes along once every million (or more) people. And while the pursuit of music is a risky one, with her voice, success would probably come a lot easier to her than most. In her ripped skinny jeans and tiny T, she had the body, and the stunning face to solidify the star image, making her chances of success in music even better! Yet, by all common wisdom, becoming a doctor not only made her parents beam, but is perceived to be a greater gift to society at large than music.
I’ve been on that page myself. I mean, what is the point of a painting, or a song, or a piece of fine writing anyway? It’s not like curing cancer. A painting sits on the wall. It doesn’t help anyone, cure anything. A song, well, we may sing along with it, lift us up when we’re feeling sad, or share it when we’re happy, but it’s not going to extend our lives, like being a doctor will. And fiction writing, ah, what is that worth other than a few hours of entertainment. It’s not going to change the world or anything, right?
Spent my lifetime searching for my value, if I have any, so very often feeling like I don’t. All I’ve ever really been is an artist (in one form or another, drawing, designing, building, writing). And unless I’ve use these skills in the commercial arena such as advertising or marketing, I’m left with little recognition and even less income when I practice the fine arts. So what the hell good are the arts, anyway?
Society measures our value by our perceived contributions. Doctors, professors, executives make a lot of money by the perception that they give a lot to society as a whole. Value of medical pros is easy to understand, caring for the sick, curing disease. Teachers, who are actually paid quite a bit only working part time yet making full time salaries with benefits and pensions, are not only rewarded financially but sociologically with accolades and kudos from the media, politicians and society at large. High level execs manage businesses that employ many, ostensibly.
Telling people about this teen singer, and asking what is the most contributory path this girl should take—doctor or musician, hands down the answer is “doctor.” Understandably, achieving success through music is difficult at best, but that was not my question. Assuming she could become successful with music, most people still insisted a doctor saving lives, potentially curing cancer was of greater benefit to society. Me, too, until asking my infinitely wise 11 year old daughter this question.
“She should do whatever her passion is,” she told me on the way to drop her off for a week at Girl Scout camp last weekend.
“What if she has a passion for both?” I asked. “I mean, if she could potentially cure cancer, wouldn’t that be of greater value to the world then music?”
“It’s her choice because both are equally valuable. Music can stop wars, soothe feelings, be shared across the globe to build bridges between people where there were none before. I mean, look at all the concerts that raise money for hurricane victims, or money for medicine for poor countries. Music helps me deal with my feelings everyday, keeps me in touch with what I’m feeling, reminds me I’m not the only one feeling like I do. It connects me to everyone, knowing we’re feeling basically the same things.”
Every part of me was humbled by her insight. Not only was she validating the Arts, my daughter was validating me.
“Sure, curing cancer is important. It’s why I want to be a doctor. And I love music too, but I’m not great at it, and probably never will be. But that girl at the fair was, is. And if she can turn the world on, like she did us, and all those other people sitting there, than maybe she should do music instead, no matter what her dad said or wants her to be.”
I didn’t get in, mom, my daughter called me hysterically crying from school on Monday.
What? She couldn’t be talking about her talent show. She insisted she’d get in, no problem, as last year a boy got on stage, threw a top hat at the judges, and he got in, she’d told us.
They didn’t want me, mom, she managed through quick gasps. I wasn’t good enough. And then she crumbled, lost to herself, and her value.
My heart in my throat, I told her I’d call the school and talk to whoever was in charge and find out why they didn’t want her in the show. I insisted multiple times she WAS good enough, regardless of what her elementary school said. I had listened to her practicing for a week, and the last several days she was on tone, her voice strong, clear, resonant. It was mind-boggling why she didn’t get in, I told her, and promised again to find out what was going on before we disconnected.
I contacted the school directly. Made the front office aware my daughter was very upset. I left messages for the principal, as well as the teachers involved with the talent show. Apparently, helping me deal with the child’s heart they broke was less important than lunch, as no one got back to me, and I was unable to give my daughter any information when she got home. No one at school bothered to speak with her either…