If you have children, or some sort of meaningful peripheral relationship to them, you have likely come across Margaret Wise Brown’s book, The Runaway Bunny. Or perhaps you remember it being read to you as a child, which I certainly do. It wasn’t until I had my own son that I was reintroduced to this seemingly innocuous story and was able to more carefully consider its implications. To be honest, and perhaps this is too revelatory, I was actually disturbed by its content when I put it through the Freudian meat grinder. When viewed through that filter, it’s clearly a story about an overbearing mother that will never let her child go, a “mommy-knows-best” beginning that ends with an middle aged man running a motel on some deserted stretch of highway with a proclivity to dress in drag…and not in a healthy way.
However, I do believe there are always multiple levels of analysis with these projection-prone works and I am going to spend the remainder of this (whatever this is) post on a different level of analysis: deconstructing the ego and why it’s so important in our work as progressive educators. This gets tricky because I am going to use a definition of a term here that’s bound to cause a collective groan as its wide use and wave-particle like nature is as prone to projection as the book I am referencing, but please stick with me after I say that Michael Pollan’s definition of spiritual is something I think we can all find useful when it comes to the ego.
“The opposite of spiritual is egotistical. To the extent that you can diminish the role of the ego, you become a more spiritual person — more connected, less defended.”
To further explore this idea of the ego by using the metric of more connected and less defended, it might be useful to consider our inner experience when we are trying to determine the degree to which the ego is operating. After all, it isn’t a thing you can find with your hands or eyes. We have to enter a more nebulous and subjective territory, often groping in the dark for who knows what. There are clues, like feeling defensive and justified in our position. Or when we try to come across as confident when really we are masking over some opaque and deep rooted fear, often hiding in our blindspot. In either case, to operate from that place is to take a disconnected position whose actions further compound the feeling of disconnection for yourself and the person in front of you.
The brilliance of the ego is its ability to shape shift into subtler and subtler forms, even at times appearing virtuous. So we might be able to acknowledge the defensiveness, but the vehicle through which it manifests simply changes when identified. The ability to recognize these changes is the key to breaking out of they cycle. That’s where the Runaway Bunny becomes pertinent. For the sake of brevity, I won’t be taking you through the entire book, but will use what I find to be the most poignant moments.
The basic premise is that a little bunny tells his mother he’s going to runaway and a back and forth ensues between him and his mother. Here’s the first interaction after the little bunny declares his intentions of running away.
“If you run away, I will run after you for you are my little bunny.”
“If you run after me, I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”
“If you become a fish, I will become a fisherman and fish for you.”
The hook. The shiny lure. A simple tug and the hook is set. In entering my work as a college counselor, I hadn’t considered that I wouldn’t be able to connect with all of my students, to be able to co-create something that would serve them in their deepest, purpose driven quest. That I would be able to do this, on some sort of continuum for each individual, was a given; although like so many destructive assumptions, it was never scrutinized or brought out into the daylight to be examined. What does someone do when the very framework that they had invested so much of themselves into is called into question? How do you make an adjustment that originates from a “connected” place when what you have invested so much time in fleshing out, often times becoming identified with, was rejected? And what happens to us as progressive educators, who often times feel such a deep belief in the values we are trying to live? How do we keep out of the trap of using our virtues as vices?
There is a human reflex to recoil in the face of rejection, and the energy in the recoil, the impulse that wants to spring back, is almost certainly ego generated. The mistake is taking the bait without discernment, to allow the ego to harness the energy of the animal instinct within us. Now what seemed to be sustenance has revealed itself to be a barbed hook and almost impossible to break free from; each consecutive action after the hook is set works to set the hook deeper. In this case, I must acknowledge the map I made wasn’t the territory, but an approximation. Now that I am able to take conditions on the ground into consideration, how do I create a more accurate map sans hook?
I believe connection is the quickest and surest measurement against which we can throw any proposed adjustment. “Which student do I feel least connected to and does this serve them well” could be the kind of inquiry that originates from this place. Is there a way to feel more connected to the most difficult student without spiralling into one of Dante’s hell realms? I realize it’s a heavy lift and not one that I can confidently say I won’t drop on my foot.
“If you become a bird and fly away from me, said the mother, I will be a tree that you come home to.”
As I work to bring awareness to the complexities of personal complexes, and the deep grooved neural pathways they have so diligently carved out, I will eventually come to a place of openness. The ego’s compulsion closes towards resignation with limited vision. The connected compulsion opens towards acceptance from which creative solutions have space to present themselves. This is a place where the limits of the situation (and the ego’s ability to control it) are acknowledge without succumbing to the downward pull into the swamp of despair. And this is the moment for myself when it takes every ounce of vigilance I can muster to take a deep breath and make sure the tree I just landed in isn’t the newest shape the ego has shifted into.
“I will become a little sailboat and I will sail away from you.
If you become a sailboat and sail away from me, I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”
This image is so powerful and so appropriate. Wind is not something you can see, yet can be the greatest determinant in destination. The ego is a beautiful agent of the wind in this allegory, blowing you where it wants you to go, setting the hook with a glimpse through the looking glass at the Land of Validation; where university acceptances are plentiful, every parent is happy, and you are beloved by all.
I’m sure most educators reach this place at some point, and again its an assumption that withers quickly under the sun, but the following was shocking to me: not everyone is going to like me no matter how hard I try, and conversely, I am not going to like everyone I am tasked with serving. That is so hard to acknowledge because the ego’s assumption is that someone who doesn’t validate our need to be liked can’t and shouldn’t be served. The need to be liked is such a powerful, yet subtle agent of the ego. It amplifies the primal, going back to the very beginning of our collective human story, and uses it to get us to go where it wants us to go. So, I am learning how to reformulate a response whose process looks something like this: am I trying to get a need met? If yes, what is that need? Naming it brings it into the light for scrutiny. And finally, is trying to get that need met through this situation ultimately the best way forward? I have yet to hit on a “yes” from that last question.
For myself, this kind of inquiry is often in hindsight, long after the initial residue of the situation has worn off. I appreciate being able to do that, but my goal is to bring a level of equanimity and awareness to whatever is unfolding right in front of me, making wisdom accessible to the immediate and in the service of whoever in front of me.
“I will become a little boy and run into a house.”
“When you become a little boy and run into the house, I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”
“Shucks. I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”
And so he did.
“Have a carrot said the mother bunny.”
There is no better description of allegorical resignation than this, a situation where we butt up against a consequential choice which is endemic to the human experience. There are big moments, small moments, medium moments, but there is no avoiding the multitude of moments we’re all destined for. It’s the moment that all aspiring script writers are working to bring to life; the thread woven through a series of events, raising the stakes, building a tension that demands resolution. This is the moment where the protagonist’s choice hangs in the balance and on the other side of that choice things will never go back to the way they were.
The ego is relentless and it wants you to know this, so take the carrot and be done with it! I think we can all recognize people that have taken the carrot. We’ve had them as our teachers, friends, and colleagues. Some of us have taken it momentarily only to realize the folly in our choice, having to work twice as hard to undo the cascading consequences of a choice made from a place of ego. But in my estimation, it’s privileging one kind of suffering over another because suffering, on some level, is unavoidable. In one case, you are suffering for an ideal that is focused on serving the other and has the benefit of spiritual growth (in the Michael Pollan sense), whereas the other suffering results from the world not meeting the ego’s criteria of how things should be and its attempt to try and bend the world to that criteria.
I fundamentally believe that it is not possible to be disconnected and student centered simultaneously. They are, in my estimation, mutually exclusive. Therefore, I hope you will understand me when I say that I believe progressive education is a spiritual pursuit; one in which we stay less defended, more connected, pass on the carrot, and refuse to be the ego’s little bunny.