On Ego, Rumi and Barney Fife

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All rights © Paramount Pictures

Rumi might have recognized that “the ego is a veil between humans and God” but Barney Fife didn’t seem to know it even existed. Let alone how singularly it informed his decisions and reactions.

But a Sufi mystic and a TV deputy can each teach us the same two lessons in their own unique way. Be as honest with ourselves as possible. Be as gracious with others as possible.

There is a not so fine line between understanding human motivation and manipulating it. Make no mistake about that. But know that just as you can appeal to someone’s ego to motivate them so too can people manipulate yours.

In an episode titled The Big House, Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife is left alone to guard two big-city mobsters while Sheriff Andy Griffith assists the feds with tracking down an additional two. Fife is often the fall guy but his boss is always calm and capable.

Fife’s everpresent small-town inferiority complex is easy to exploit. The mafiosos waste no time in devising a way to get the blundering lawman into their cell, loudly musing that surely a sophisticated sheriff knows about ‘the shakedown’, even in podunk Mayberry.

Taking the bait we knew he would he throws open their cell door and barges in, flipping the mattress for contraband within a hot second. While of course the bad guys slip behind him and out of the cell.

He is so determined to prove he is not insignificant that he instead exploits his own insecurity and showcases his incompetence. They didn’t even have to manipulate him that hard. He wasn’t self-aware enough to be honest about his own motives so he got played for a fool.

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All rights © Paramount Pictures

Insecurity is the underbelly of ego. Ego can be the public face of our fears and self-loathing, but often the masks we wear overcorrect for our perceived weaknesses. It can reek of effort. This can take the form of humblebragging and directing conversations back to our own areas of familiarity or expertise. Neither of which are morally reprehensible but neither flow from a place of peaceful self-security either. Overcompensating is something self-assured people rarely do.

If we’re self-aware enough to explore what our weaknesses are they are less likely to make us vulnerable to manipulation — both to ourselves and to occasional cartoonishly nefarious villains, professional foe or gaslighting ex. But typically no one has more malicious ulterior motives than our own negative self-talk. So this is a good place to begin. Ask yourself if you overcompensate. Do you humblebrag about particular traits, feats, stories or abilities? Whatever reaction you’re hoping to gain from your audience is likely what you’re lacking in yourself.

If you’re trying to goad people into complimenting your youth and beauty perhaps you’re struggling with your appearance and even your mortality. Perhaps unachieved goals or status you expected to have or have met by a particular age or stage in life. I can’t speak to other people’s existentialism but the humblebrag always makes me wonder what you’re hiding.

If you’re always trying to steer conversations toward the British Empire or obscure baseball stats to center topics around your personal strengths perhaps you want people to think you’re smart. Perhaps intelligence is one of your metrics for value. And you want to feel important.

Barney Fife undeniably wants to feel important. He loves his job and wants to be admired for doing it well. And yet the harder he tries the worse he fails. Alas, he is the bumbling sidekick and typecasting does not allow for soul searching or character arcs. He is constantly relying on dumb luck to keep the sheriff from discovering his mistakes or begrudgingly thanking the sheriff for his help in mitigating the damages from his mishaps.

I’m not promoting the wholesale death of the ego. It can be both a compass and a lighthouse if you are self-aware. But pride goeth before the fall and if we take credit for what we haven’t done we are not being our truest selves — we are not confronting and breaking our weaknesses to become our best selves.

In an episode titled Barney Gets His Man, our hapless deputy with the proverbial heart of gold arrests a man for littering. He doesn’t know he’s an escaped convict wanted by the state.

While they argue on the sidewalk about his citation the escapee sees two patrol cops recognize him. In a panic, he tries to flee and onlookers mistake the ensuing tussle for a tackle from Barney Fife. The crowd surrounds them and the man who fell to the ground after tumbling with a litterer stands and realizes he’s arrested the escaped convict the police are looking for.

His prestige in the town soars parallel with his swelling pride. And our jolly good fellow does not disabuse anybody of the notion that he heroically captured a wanted criminal. He is not honest with himself and is tacitly dishonest with everyone in town celebrating his feat.

But of course, the convict escapes again. Having already threatened revenge on Barney they know he won’t go far. When the sheriff finds him hiding in a hayloft he sets up the capture so Barney can take credit for capturing the same dangerous man twice. He smiles kindly and perpetuates the lie.

But Andy’s quiet humility is, of course, the real hero. Compassion motivates his maintenance of his fellow sheriff’s facade. He is gracious with his friend.

While Barney Fife taught us much about what not to do, who not to be, what we do learn from a character comedian like Don Knotts is the beauty of laughter. According to his daughter, he had his family laughing at his deathbed until the very end.

Not everyone who walks this Earth will leave an enduring legacy. And no one should spend their life questing for the perfect super-ego. TV foibles and Persian poets are better guides than our own ego but we will never achieve the ego-ideal. Good may be the enemy of great but perfect is the enemy of the good.

What we learn is worth only as much as we live those lessons. Don’t indulge your insecurities like impulses. We can be good, perhaps our own best, only if we are honest with ourselves and gracious with others.

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