Updated: Oct 15, 2020
The disruption to our lives as a result of the coronavirus pandemic ultimately raises questions of identity. How did you identify yourself in the past that is no longer certain in the present? For example, someone might identify as a college student and have a set goal/path towards graduation, but now that future is uncertain and what it means to be a college student has shifted. Someone else might attach their identity to being a Little League Coach, and now Little League is on hiatus. Another person might tie their identity to their job or career, but because of the pandemic they’ve lost that job, or their career is indefinitely on hold. All of us tend to give meaning to certain things in our lives that shape our sense of self and identity. It is that attachment that creates and supports Ego. And for most of us, it is Ego that determines our identity and sense of self-worth (our sense of “enoughness”).
What is Ego?
In his book, “A New Earth,” Eckhart Tolle writes: “Ego is no more than this: identification with form” and forms can be physical in nature, our thoughts, and our emotions. Here some examples of form, those things we attach our identity to:
Things—what you wear, the car you drive, the phone you have, the kind of house you live in, the number of books you own or don’t own, things that you’ve produced…it can pretty much be any material thing.
Titles/status—your money (even the lack thereof), your degree, the position you have in your organization, whether you’re a member of a group or not, your role (mother, father, provider, nurturer, married, single, etc.).
Body—your physical appearance, weight, hair color, strength, health or illness, the capability of your body to perform certain tasks (run a marathon, play an instrument, even mundane things like being able to see).
Thoughts—your ideas, your creative work, your beliefs (religious, political, educational, sexual, etc.).
As you can see, we can basically attach our identity to anything. And interestingly, it’s not simply the “positive” things we can attach our identity to. For example, if you have a chronic illness, you might identify yourself as “chronically ill.” As someone who wrestled with depression for decades, I always identified myself as a depressed person; even when I wasn’t clinically depressed, I still thought of myself as “depressed, just not right now.” My identity was attached to my experience of depression and it has taken a lot of work to recognize that and let it go. You can attach identity to being wealthy or being poor, to having creativity or lacking it, to your presumed level of intelligence. Ego and identity are not simply about feeling “better than” someone else, Ego doesn’t always look like arrogance and hubris. Ego is what we attach our sense of identity to.
Ego and Coronavirus
So, what does any of this have to do with the coronavirus? This pandemic has shaken up everyone’s life, from the youngest child to the oldest adult. We have all lost something and we cannot try and put the loses into a hierarchy—for the purpose of this post, I want to avoid comparisons. Interestingly, the process of comparing our loss and pain is a form of Ego. It’s the need to let others know your loss is worse than theirs--you know the type, always trying to one-up the person with, “oh, I’m sorry you broke up with your boyfriend, but I got divorced…” or “I’m sorry you’re having a tough time at work, but at least you have a job you like. I hate my job.”
As humans we have had a collective loss, and it’s hard. This is unknown territory, for all of us. And yet I’m wondering:
Can part of the pain be alleviated if we learn to detach our identity from whatever ego form we have recently lost?
If I’m not ___________ , then Who Am I?
Let me illustrate what I mean with a personal example. I am a life coach and work from home. While my kids are at school and my husband at work, I have a schedule that I follow in order to get my work done. I have attached my identity to my ability to work hard, follow through, check things off my list. I am persistent.
However, since the pandemic, my family has been home 24 hours a day. My attention has shifted. Now, I spend time and energy supporting my kids and providing stability for them as their lives change. I have a lot more distractions. And suddenly, with the world in chaos, getting all of my social media posts out on schedule doesn’t feel very important. I’m finding that there are days when I feel apathetic (to work and life), times when I feel like my voice is insignificant, and I struggle as my entire schedule/life has been disrupted (to be fair, I also have days of calm, motivation, creativity, sense of purpose, etc.).
So now, as I’m checking less and less off my to-do list, my Ego is threatened—because if I’m not producing as much and not working as hard as I used to, then Ego tells me that I'm not as good or valuable or worthy as I used to be. Since the pandemic I have been less persistent in my work. And because I have attached my identity so much to the idea of being a hard worker and persistent, I am now left asking the question, “If I’m not a hard worker, then who am I?”
Mob Boss of Self-Esteem
Ego is tricky. I like to think of Ego as the Mob Boss of Self-Esteem who employs a lot of tactics to get us to feel either better than, or less than other people. My Ego has two hired guns—Perfectionism and the Critic. I used to be beholden to Perfectionism, but it’s lost its edge a bit. It is still employed by Ego, but not sent to do the dirty work as often. The Critic, well, the Critic is good at its job. The Critic is the voice telling me what I should or shouldn’t be doing, or that my effort is not enough. The thing to remember though, is that Ego is motivated by fear, a scarcity mentality, and the need to both label and divide people. This is based in binary thinking. We cannot feel either superior or inferior if there isn’t an “other” to compare ourselves to. When stuck in binary thinking you are either good or bad, productive or unproductive, important or insignificant.
Can you relate? Maybe you’ve lost your sense of humor and your Ego is threatened because you’re no longer the Funny-Guy; maybe you’ve lost your motivation to do schoolwork and your Ego is scared because you’re no longer the A-Student. Maybe, like me, your motivation and productivity has decreased, and Ego is really worried because who are you, if you’re feeling apathetic and unproductive?
The coronavirus is holding a mirror up to us, individually and collectively. The mirror is showing us what we thought was important and bringing it into question. We are presented with the opportunity to reassess the importance of busyness in our lives. We are being asked to change our sense of worth from doing to being. I think, we have the chance to respond to the coronavirus as an amazing gift. I don’t mean to negate the very real losses and pain people are experiencing; I just think this is an opportunity to see what we’ve attached our identity to and consider a new way of being. We can find that sorrow and pain can be a gift.
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
Going back to my Egoic identity of being a “hard worker,” I am finding I need to let go of that form. The question arises—do I have value, regardless of how often I post on social media, or how many blog posts I write, or how much content I’m able to provide for others? As I practice detaching my identity, of quieting the Ego, this pandemic is less scary. I can accept it simply as it is. It is what I am experiencing right now, that is all. No judgment, just acceptance. And I am finding this powerful and healing.
I love stories and I love the power of rewriting our stories. The coronavirus is providing me the chance to shift my narrative. The pandemic is helping me see value in slowing down, spending time in reflection, reinforcing connections and bonds with others, even watching more Netflix than I normally do. Slowing down is taking me to creative spaces I don't normally experience--indeed, slowing down is a form of creativity in and of itself. Regardless of what I'm doing during the pandemic, I have worth because I am. And so do you. The true source of our worth is in Being.