Confrontation with a Fallen-away Dead Head

Chapter 4, Part 3

By continually falling for the lifelong hoodwink foisted on us by our egos, we prove there’s a sucker born every minute.

A born-again sucker born again every minute

To see how, you can easily spy on your own thinking. While you go about your daily routine, stop to eavesdrop on what kind of sham you’re pulling on yourself at any one time. Tune into your innermost chatter.

Maybe you’re the exception, but for most of us, the prattle goes something like this.

  • Why does everything always happen to me?
  • Damn! Just look at all those new wrinkles.
  • Why aren’t I rich?
  • Everyone else in the meeting gets high praise, but I just get ignored.
  • Why do I always catch all the red lights?
  • Man, I never get a break with the bus schedule.
  • I’ll never forgive my sister for forgetting my birthday.
  • Did that guy mean to slam the door in my face?
  • I’ll bet the minister was thinking of me when he was talking about greed.
  • That clerk wanted to jerk me around by waiting on this other woman first.
  • What did he really mean by that remark?
  • If one more bad thing happens to me this morning, I’m going home.
  • Men used to flock around me, and now they never pay me a glance.
  • How many rejection slips can one writer stand before he just gives up?
  • What if a terrorist were to trigger a suitcase atomic bomb downtown?
  • I said hello to that jackass, and he barely even nodded back.
  • I do everything for John, but he just sits there on the couch watching football.
  • My future is a real crap shoot. I could die tomorrow.

We all know the routine. The mind is a tangle of propaganda. That’s because the ego’s job is to sucker us into imagined insults, offenses, and failures; unrealistic ambitions or accomplishments; feared disappointments, worries, phobias. In fact, the ego’s currency is doubt, and its payoff pessimism.

Three Stooges

The Three Stooges would do a better job as our advocates

The ego is the source of all hurtful inner babble. Egotism is a constant con game. It short-circuits attempts at happiness by using self-serving but, ironically enough, self-destructive rationalizations for almost any situation. The unchecked ego butts into almost every thought we have. Its bungling attempts always turn into a comedy of errors.

The Three Stooges would do a better job as our advocates.

As a perfect example of egos in action, why don’t we look at a real-life incident that happened to me. While working on this chapter of Back to Walden, I bumbled into a situation comedy whose deep insignificance was its very significance. Here is a tale of conflicting egos that evokes Thoreau’s plea for us to “wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance” to find the solid foundation of truth below.

Like Thoreau, I was taking my afternoon “saunter” to see what I could see, when I came to the local town complex, where the library, police station, fire station, and elementary school are all located, surrounded by playgrounds and public land. Or so I thought. Across the street from this complex, I took a path leading through what appeared to be town property and stopped beside an alder bush to admire a white-throated sparrow perched inside.

The little bird twitched its head this way and that, eyeing me skeptically from different angles as if I were a dream. And perhaps, as Buddhists believe, I was. Perhaps everything is.

White-throated sparrow

White-throated sparrow

Standing there, I recalled the legend about Antonin Dvorak’s “Going Home” section of the New World Symphony; that it was inspired by, and resonates with, the song of the white-throated sparrow. As one musical blogger noted about Dvorak’s composition, it features the interval of a major third, the root sounding once, and the higher note repeated twice, much like the song of the white-throated sparrow. Later the tune is raised a fifth, a pattern that white-throated sparrows also repeat with eerie similarity.

As I was thinking deep thoughts about this Buddhist sparrow, an indignant human voice interrupted my reverie. “Who in the world are you?”

I turned to find a bearded man in jeans and a flannel shirt staring me down from about 10 meters away, at the edge of an adjacent yard.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Who are you,” the man demanded, “and what are you doing on my property?”

I admit it, I was taken aback. But, as I stuttered for an apt response, I flattered myself that I recognized instantly what I was dealing with here. A former hippie turned home-owner. Now, this much I know for sure. There is nothing in nature more uncomfortable with itself than a liberal who owns property. Ownership brings out the repressed Republican within, whose only purpose in life is protecting everything he or she has earned. Ownership eventually puts this conservative alter-ego at odds with every dearly held progressive principle. And evidently that eventuality was now.

But remember. This was my ego talking, and the medium of the ego is disinformation. I only assumed all this was going on inside the fellow I faced. Fortunately, I recognized as much by Deconstructing Charlie. So, in the twinkling of a thought wave, I set aside these cynical observations and determined to take the high road.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “It looked like town property to me. I thought this was one of those school trails the kids take through public land.”

I paused as the man considered me, his expression a shifting collage of contradictions. What made me think this guy was a former Dead Head, fallen upon affluent times? What a long strange trip it’s been!

“I apologize if this is private property,” I added.

“Are you from Amherst?” he said suspiciously.

I pondered for a split-second. Since we were miles from any town line, I interpreted his question, with the help of my ego, as a euphemism. What he was really asking, I guessed, was whether I was a burglar, a drug addict, a prowler, a stalker, a child molester. Or even worse, an illegal immigrant! But I didn’t say so, for the Deconstructed Charlie was intent upon graciousness.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m Charlie Creekmore, and I work at UMass. Like I say, I’m sorry if I trespassed, it was totally unintentional.”

The man’s face began to clear in view of my relentless civility. “Cool,” he said, the old hippie in him fighting for control. Then the Republican elbowed Jerry Garcia aside: “You can leave the way you came in.”

Poster for North by Northwest

Was I about to get North-by-Northwested?

“Thanks,” I said. “But, if you don’t mind, I’ll leave the way I was going. I’m headed toward Amethyst Brook.”

“Cool,” he said again, but with a lingering question in his tone, not unlike the two higher notes at the end of a white-throated sparrow’s song. And, not unlike the white-throated sparrow I’d just been observing, his head twitched this way and that as he eyed me from various angles. Was I for real or not?

“Er, you ought to check for ticks,” he finally said as his better half finally took over. “They’re a lot of them in this field.”

“Thank you,” I responded. “And sorry for the intrusion. It won’t happen again.”

What ounce of wisdom can we take from this slice of life? First and foremost, I was wrestling with my own ego as much as he with his. It was a mixed tag-team match with a liberal and conservative on each side. But at least we both treated each other courteously.

Second, if this conflicted property owner gave his version, it would no doubt be completely different from mine. Why? Each of us views the world through a glass darkly, which catches only half-truths, exaggerations, distortions, and misapprehensions. When we believe we’re using an electron microscope to focus on one true reality, we’re actually using a kaleidoscope to blend alternate realities. Oh what a tangled web we weave!

The best we can do is question reality, give people the benefit of the doubt, elevate our thoughts to a Buddhist level, and edit out the bad news.

In case I’m giving you the impression that my part in this interlude was all good will and high-mindedness, don’t believe it. Yes, I treated the man with respect and graciousness. But later, as I was strolling beside Amethyst Brook, my ego began whispering in my ear. I thought about all those Alfred Hitchcock snafus in which innocent people are thrown into nightmares and charged with hideous crimes. Suppose this guy walked across the street and reported me to the police as a prowler. After all, I gave him my name and even told him where I worked.

Was I about to get North-by-Northwested?

Apparently not. So far The Man hasn’t rapped on my door with handcuffs. Which is as good a way as any to describe the handiwork of the ego. It leaves us always waiting for fate to come knocking with a warrant.

For more crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated by the ego, and for more examples of what we can do about it, please pore over the next section.