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In the summer of 1987 I had just turned nineteen, and was serving as a volunteer at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel.
An elder African-American leader in the Baha’i Faith, Magdalene Carney, had invited me to her home for dinner. I looked up to her as a person of great faith and humility who had served sacrificially in education and as a champion of the Civil Rights era.
I remember Magdalene’s dignity and grace, her nobility and humility, her sense of having seen suffering but of having a great capacity for joy and humor, her abiding determination and unwavering certitude and obedience to God. I also remember her gentleness and genuine kindness, which inspired a feeling of safety in me.
If I were a stray cat I would have gone to her house.
That evening, I felt I could be open with her to explore my heart’s concerns and hopes as an emerging adult, trying to take responsibility for who I would become in the world. That included talking about dreamtime experiences that seemed significant. One of my concerns was a fear of my ego getting in the way of pure service to others.
I felt anxious and stuck. It mattered so much to me. Trying to work it all out, at one point I said:
I know that the ancestors and angels of the spiritual realm are all lined up and waiting for volunteers to serve. I know it has very little to do with my actual capacity to serve, but with theirs. They are waiting. I don’t even have to raise my arm to volunteer. I only need to wiggle my little finger to say ‘yes’ and they will rush forward. I know a little about what they are capable of. I also know that many great things are likely to be achieved by them even if all I do is raise my little finger; others in this world are likely to think I am doing those great deeds and begin to falsely attribute praise to me. I’m worried that as that praise begins I’ll start to believe them and think it’s me, and that my growing ego will then actually cut off my ability to serve. I see in you humble service combined with great deeds. How do you get rid of ego? How do you not let it get in the way of doing service?
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Magdalene paused and then said in her soft Southern accent, “I just do it.” Another pause. “Ego will always be there. I say, ‘Oh hello, ego. There you are. Aren’t you cute?’ And then I just do it anyway.”
… for holy souls, trials are as the gift of God, the Exalted; but for weak souls they are an unexpected calamity. This test is just as thou hast written: it removeth the rust of egotism from the mirror of the heart until the Sun of Truth may shine therein. For, no veil is greater than egotism and no matter how thin that covering may be, yet it will finally veil man entirely and prevent him from receiving a portion of the eternal bounty.
Her simple grandmother’s wisdom has endured with me to this day. We all have ego. We will never get rid of it entirely, and there is no point in waiting till it’s gone, or diminished enough before we wholeheartedly throw ourselves into the arena of service to humanity, like Magdalene the champion did.
She’s gone from this physical plane of existence now, but I see her smile a lot.
That’s why the stories in this series of essays recount what happened after I finally chose to raise my little finger.