The Joy of Being Nobody

I am reading a book of selected letters written by Thomas Merton to his friends, The Road to Joy. The first are those he wrote to his friend Mark Van Doren. This morning I find that he was the son of Charles Van Doren’s. Very few folks reading this blog will know who that is, but I remember. Charles Van Doren was a big winner on a TV quiz show “Twenty One” in 1959 and later was accused of being fed the questions and answers ahead of time. Merton wrote to both Mark and Charles about the affair. He took a philosophical approach and it is difficult to tell from his comments whether he believed Charles actually had cheated or not (Charles later confessed that he had before a congressional committee), but Merton saw the whole affair as a symptom of an American sickness. I was struck by one comment he made in his letter to Mark: “No one can be a success without suffering from it in some way.”

I think this is what I believe as I watch our election process and when I observe the world of entertainment, of religion and of the corporate world. It pains me to watch people as they move up some imaginary ladder surrender their values in order to maintain their position. When I was a child I memorized a poem by Emily Dickenson that comes to mind every so often for its utter truth:

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 one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

I thought to give some examples of exactly the sort of thing that pains me…but my attempt to do so seems to fall flat. All I can say is that no one is exempt. Oh, maybe Mahatma Gandhi, but he was one who was “banished” eventually. For the most part, those who hold to their values don’t make it to the top. I have watched so many heroes who buckle under the pressure of being held in admiration by others. And I feel sad for those who seem like heroes now … “it” will happen to them as they experience success.

This may seem awfully pessimistic for an optimist. But let me qualify myself. I think the tendency to yield one’s values in order to appease the “admiring bog”, is just plain human. We all want to be loved, admired, thought of as intelligent and wise. I myself have been known to choose my words oh-so-carefully to keep the approval of others, i.e. employers. I am not really proud of that, but it is what it is or as Popeye would say, “I Yam What I Yam”. But I can change. I can see the truth and name it and move on.

Let me share a true experience. A few years back when I was still working, I was at a meeting of fellow educators. We were talking about immigrant parents who were showing up in our classes and the language barriers that presented. I made a statement that clearly sounded racist and my boss called me on it. I thought to qualify myself, but I knew that the effort to do so would only dig myself deeper into a hole. So I blushed and let the meeting go on. When I left the meeting and walked out into the parking lot, I suddenly had this feeling of freedom. I had revealed a prejudice that was still inside me, diminishing some image I had of myself or others might have of me…and survived. I saw the truth…and moved on. I did make an amends  to my boss later and she told me she really didn’t remember the incident. What is important is that I’d given the prejudice a hole through which it could escape my character.

I suppose I will never have an “admiring bog” and that is perfectly fine with me. When I go to heaven, I hope Emily Dickinson will be there to greet me – and Popeye.

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