I’ve always loved learning. It’s been the quest of my ego. In college, I had a professor who used to say,
I think about that each time I have a serendipitous revelation from something mundane or trite. Pop culture is a big feature in these these. Would you expect to get life lessons from TV shows? I have. My ego isn’t wounded by admitting that.
Lessons from Grey’s Anatomy
I’ve been watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘. In the episode I just finished, there’s a new specialist at Seattle Grey Hospital. He’s a war veteran & there to run the trauma care unit. And he has the current resident doctors’ hackles all up. In a case, two senior doctors offer their help, which he refuses, saying that the junior team he’s meant to be teaching will not let him learn if there are any senior doctors around.
“Except me,” he adds, asserting territory dominance.
Two senior doctors confront him for his decision. They complain that they’ve had to clean it up. He asks them what they would have done. One says, “You had two of the biggest specialists in the country standing ten feet away. I would have asked them to help.” Re-establishing their territory dominance.
He says, “I mean, medically. There are different ways to do things. Out on the battlefield, when someone dies, we stay away. Here, you run towards that person. It’s my first day. I have things to learn. So tell me, what would you have done, medically?”
There’s a moment where the camera pauses to show the startled reactions of everyone around. It’s at that moment that they all realise he isn’t playing their ego game.
Ego as the identity
Why did this Grey’s Anatomy scene move me so profoundly? Because I am this person. I have been in this situation. Down to the exact expression on the faces of people around me. I’m not saying I do not have an ego or don’t try to assert dominance in situations. I think it’s just a very different kind from the most popular kind around.
Most people’s sense of identity comes from what they hold. In the modern age, this includes words, knowledge, and beliefs. Degrees & certificates are sceptre & crown. The Brahminical system understood & capitalised on this. It withheld knowledge as a means of power. Royalty has traditionally withheld land for the same reasons. Religious organisations still withhold people’s agency with moral policing.
This is why people are easily radicalised. We will fight tooth & nail to defend the beliefs that we see as part of who we are. It’s also the reason for gaslighting. The reality in our minds is most important to our ego. Any alternate viewpoint or evidence that alters this, feels like a threat. Parents tell their children they’re too young to understand, men tell women they’re imagining things, and bosses & employers penalise people for innovations. ‘The way I believe things to be’ is most important to the sense of self.
Binary identities and ego boxes
But we live in the information age now. Knowledge is (almost) free. There are land grabs everywhere, in copyright law, in the net neutrality debate & more. Yet, our minds are speeding supernovas. How can one draw limits to where they go? As an Indian who is vocal & visible, I find myself navigating a lot of minefields of other people’s beliefs. I am constantly asked to pick one thing, one side. One place that I hail from.
I was born in Delhi, have one parent from the North, one from the South & live in Mumbai. I have no one place. One ‘native’ language. English, Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, and French have all given my mind a welcome room. I can’t call one home. One sexuality or gender. One political party. One favourite book. One ideology. One best person.
People want to know where I stand. How can I draw my sense of identity from where my mind is right now? Tomorrow or even in the very next minute, it could be in another place. Sometimes I like to say that I flirt with belief systems. The one thing I might be able to pin my identity on is how fast my mind runs, and how agile my ego is, in adapting. And that’s what the trauma specialist was demonstrating in that scene.
It’s not a lack of ego. It’s just a different kind of ego – an impersonal one, where the emotions aren’t tied to something tangible like here & now. It doesn’t mean such a person doesn’t care. For what are emotions but the most mutable aspect of human living?