This is an essay originally written for Springhouse magazine, to which I've contributed pieces for 25 years!
Gary [the Springhouse editor] likes occasionally to quote Emily Dickinson, “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too?” I always like that quote. We all want to be “somebody” in that we want to be special. We don’t want to be put down or made to feel unimportant. Once, as I attended an Operation Push meeting in Chicago, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson precede a message with the invigorating chant, “I am somebody!”
Who is a “somebody”? A capital-s “Somebody” has accomplished certain things, or who has a particular station in life, and (especially) to whom you should defer. Sometimes it’s a famous person, or a person with family connections, or someone in a professional position. But being a “Somebody” in this sense is misleading. Fame is fleeting and very unreliable. Having patrician family ties is usually meaningless outside a particular community. And even prestigous white-collar professions are supposed to be oriented toward service to all people.
I usually think of a “Somebody” as one with money, who can contribute large sums and have his/her name attached to a building. At one of my alma maters, a certain building was named for a past worthy. I’ll call it “Smith Hall.” Unfortunately the registrar’s and financial aid offices were in that building. People inevitably griped when they had to go there. “I have to go to Smith Hall” (said with a sneer). Poor Mr. Smith! No one wanted to go to his building! So much for being a somebody. If I ever have a building named for me (highly unlikely), I’d be afraid it would be that kind of building.
Famous people are “Somebodies.” Unfortunately we’re inundated with the life stories of Somebodies. Parade magazine, which I get in our Sunday paper, usually contains a lead article about life lessons learned by a celebrity. I wonder, rhetorically, why the media gives such constant, fawning attention to celebrities. It can’t be pleasant for those people.
(My only brush with celebrity bears out my point. The actress Jody Foster was a freshman at the same university where I worked on my masters degree. One afternoon, at a campus restaurant, I took my pizza and soda at the counter, turned around, and there she was, barely five feet tall, standing behind me. “Excuse me,” I said politely, and she shyly said, “Excuse me.” That was 1981, when John Hinkley had shot President Reagan in order to impress her. I didn’t ask for her autograph because I thought she deserved privacy and peace.)
My wife and I once saw a piece in Newsweek about “degrees” of famousness. We were both “level 2” famous—we’re known in our professional fields. Beth and I agreed that’s as famous as we’d ever want to be! I can’t remember the other levels except “level 5,” which was being the Pope or Michael Jackson.
Who is “a nobody,” then? Being a “nobody” and being treated like a nobody are most definitely two different things. Most of us have been treated like a nobody at one time or another, and it’s a lousy feeling. In the “Emily” sense of the word, I think of a “nobody” as a “somebody” who doesn’t expect to be deferred to, who has things in perspective. A teacher and author, Martin Luther once wrote, “If you feel or imagine that you are right and suppose that your book, teaching or writing is a great achievement…then, my dear man, feel your ears. If you are doing so properly, you will find that you have a splendid pair of big, long, shaggy asses’ ears.” I also think of Lincoln, greeting wounded Confederate soldiers in the hospital, wondering if they'd shake his hand if they knew who he was.
People don’t always make a distinction between a big ego and a strong ego. Someone with a big ego possesses qualities that, true enough, are widely esteemed: bluntness (a lack of concern how words can impact others), inflexibility, self-assertion, and so on. People with big egos say, “You messed with the wrong person!” or “I’m a control freak.” (The control freaks I’ve known were pretty insecure people!) Big egos have to be “stroked.” Anyone can have a big ego—lots of people do. Lots of people in authority do.
A big ego and a strong ego are different things. A strong ego and its qualities are more difficult: the apostle Paul even calls these qualities gifts from the Holy Spirit. You manage your anger in positive ways, you have compassion, empathy, patience, you take the initiative to reconcile, and you care how your words affect others. You’re forgiving (or, at least, you work hard at learning to forgive.) Add, “having a sense of humor” to the list, and you’re on your way.
Strong egos build other people up. Significantly, strong egos are disappearing egos.
“Who are you?” That’s certainly a universal question. Several religious and philosophical traditions encourage people to “Know thyself.” Socrates, in the 5th century BC, famously declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. I take that to mean: Introspection and self-examination are among the best things you can do. You need to know how you are, not just what you are, what’s your current to-do list, and so on. (Socrates also said, “Citizens of Athens, aren’t you ashamed to care so much about making all the money you can and advancing your reputation and prestige, while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your souls you have no thought or care?”)
“Know yourself.” What does that mean? I think it means: understanding your own motives, understanding what makes you happy, what makes you sad, what is important to you, and so on. “Know yourself” can become a self-help kind of narcissism; in that case, self-esteem takes on ultimate value. (In her book An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes, “The interior life is often stupid… It fancies that the western wind blows on the Self, and leaves fall at the feet of the Self for a reason, and people are watching.”) But—and I don’t mean to sound like Dr. Phil—knowing yourself can also make you a healthy, balanced person with strong, giving relationships. In certain Eastern religious traditions, knowing yourself means understanding that there is only one true reality, which is God. We are all a part of God. The implication is: the distinctions that you and I make, those that separate and categorize people, are illusions. If we know who we are, we know we are all essentially alike and thus we’re free to be unselfish and caring.
In my own religious tradition, Christian, I’d instead echo Ephesians: Christ has broken down those manmade boundaries between persons. True, we remain individuals, and our individuality survives death. But we’re set free from egotism to love and serve one another. Certain things make you and me special, and we can use those things in service to God and neighbor.
I’ve always liked a certain idea from the Jewish tradition. The greater acts of righteousness are those things for which you earn the least recognition. The greatest acts of righteousness are those seen by God alone. Preparing a corpse for burial, for instance. The corpse can neither thank you, nor tell all his/her friends what a wonderful person you are. You’re simply doing good for a fellow human being, from the heart.
I enjoy doing good in secret, to use Jesus’ phrase. That was my grandma Crawford’s way: the less fanfare the better. Think about the good things you do: how much recognition and praise do you need? Recognition and praise are great things, to be sure. We do need praise and recognition, but I think they serve best, not when we expect them, but when they strengthen our inner motives.
Expressing gratitude to people is something I’ve found a wonderful blessing. If I think someone has done a good job, I try to make time and tell him or her, especially through thank you cards. I don’t do this as often as I should, probably. Many years after I graduated from high school, I dropped a note to a former coach. I don’t know why I thought of it then, but he’d made a big difference in my self-confidence because of something he said, and I’d been grateful. It was a little thing, but apparently something he really appreciated hearing about. He passed away not long afterward. (I had two other occasions where I offered praise or appreciation to people who, coincidentally, passed away not long after. What if I'd been too shy to say anything?)
All in all, I think it takes a lot of work to be a nobody. “Life” pressures us to be me-first, to be rigid and critical. Store clerks and others can be rude sometimes; we almost feel diminished if we don’t respond in kind. That’s the easy way out, though. So much better to go against the social grain. So much better potentially be a positive influence on others: to have your kindness, rather than your rudeness, live in people’s hearts. As the poet puts it, you might even find a friend or two.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!