An excerpt from the book, Be Nobody: Find Freedom in Being Everybody, by Lama Marut (Atria Books/Beyond Words)
Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people,
nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts.
It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all. — William Temple
We’re all desperately trying to be somebody. No one wants to be a loser, a small fry, a big zero, a washout, a nonentity. Nobody, it seems, wants to be just a nobody.
We’re all en masse, and in pretty much the same ways, struggling to be unique individuals. This obsessive quest for distinctive identity drives us all equally, for we all believe that happiness and fulfillment will come through distinguishing ourselves, through being “special.” Our contemporary culture of consumerism, materialism, narcissism and the worship of fame encourages the idea that we will be happy only when we become exceptional.
But maybe we’ve got it wrong — exactly wrong.
Maybe our deepest and most authentic happiness will be found only when we finally lay down this heavy burden of trying to be a somebody, of perpetual ego-enhancement and compulsive self-consciousness. Perhaps it is precisely in a state of egolessness, in an utter lack of self-preoccupation, that we will actually become nobody and thereby access something much larger, much more amorphous and less exclusive.
Maybe true fulfillment in life requires an emptying, not a filling.
From the “Me Decade” to the “iEra”
Selfishness and self-indulgence have always been with us. For thousands of years, the sacred texts of the world’s great religious traditions have warned us of the danger of inordinate preoccupation with ourselves, just as they have also provided the most potent tools we have for overcoming it.
But arguably, over the past few decades, at least in the so-called developed nations, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in — and a cultural validation of — an all-too-human tendency toward self-indulgence. Now more than ever before, we seem to be increasingly preoccupied with “me” — so much so that it seems no exaggeration to describe the whole zeitgeist as an obsession with the self. This excessive self-concern, now pervading virtually every aspect of our lives, is an example — perhaps even the most salient example — of a real “First World problem.”
More than 35 years ago, journalist Tom Wolfe dubbed the ’70s the “Me Decade.” The social and political concerns and upheaval of the sixties had given way to a culture of individual self-centeredness. And in 1979 — at the tail end of this decade of self-preoccupation — Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism, a scathing critique of “the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.” Lasch’s book remains one of the most accurate portraits of the world we still inhabit.
Lasch argues that every age produces a typical personality structure that accords with that particular society’s characteristic patterns. “Every society reproduces its culture — its norms, its underlying assumptions, its modes of organizing experience — in the form of personality.” And the personality definitive of our time and culture, Lasch identified as “narcissistic”:
Narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions, therefore, tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone.
Such traits revolve around an all-encompassing fixation on the self:
- The insatiable greed, extravagance, sense of entitlement, and demand for immediate gratification that are the hallmarks of rampant consumerism;
- The end of the work ethic and its transformation into an ethic of leisure and hedonism;
- The short-sighted exploitation of resources, personal and shared, without regard for future consequences or posterity;
- The total dependence on others for validation of one’s self-esteem;
- The cult of celebrity and our vicarious fascination with the glamorous “lives of the rich and famous”;
- And the “culture of spectacle” and entertainment that has infected just about everything, from politics to sports to religion.
These defining trends, already recognizable in the late 1970s, have been magnified and multiplied in the years since. The culture of narcissism has mutated and grown in all kinds of ways. Among its many other expressions, it now saturates every aspect of popular culture.
We watch television shows and YouTube videos that revolve around the ennoblement of ordinary people into the suddenly famous: “American Idol,” “The Voice” and the whole array of so-called reality shows on television; or viral YouTube footage that places a previously unknown talent into instant stardom (think Justin Bieber). We bob our heads to the lyrics of popular songs, many of which revolve around how totally awesome the surrogate singer is, not to mention the products he or she wears, drives, and consumes. We read magazines endowed with such revealing titles as Self (as if we need to be coaxed into thinking about ourselves even more than we already do!).
The narcissistic worldview informs the way we view politics as a popularity contest or “race.” It transforms news into another “show” to entertain us. Journalism today often centers far more on the journalist than it does on the subject matter of the report.
And, of course, many advertisers shamelessly exploit our narcissism when creating our desire for cool new products: iPhones, iPads, iPods — all the “i” gadgets pitched to the “I” and its insatiable hunger for attention.
It is also predominantly the neediness of the self, and not really an interest in others, that is reflected in our present addiction to nonstop communication. There are now 3.14 billion email accounts worldwide, from which we transmit millions of emails each day. We call each other all the time; we send each other nearly 200,000 text messages every second from the over six billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide; and half a billion of us worldwide have Twitter accounts.
All of this emailing, calling, messaging, and tweeting is not so much to “reach out and touch somebody,” as a phone company slogan once had it. It is mostly about reaching out so that others will acknowledge and affirm us.
And then there’s the exponential increase in usage of the social networks, Facebook being the behemoth of them all, with well over one billion participants, or nearly 20 percent of all the earth’s inhabitants. With Facebook, it’s all about the thumbs-up “likes,” isn’t it?
Do you like what I just said? Do you like this photo of my cat?
And beneath it all, the real question:
Do you like me?
Social networks are amazing communication tools that can be (and occasionally are) employed for very beneficial purposes. Unfortunately, most often the postings are of the narcissistic order, some more blatant than others. It’s sad, but it’s also typical of our self-possessed times, staring at our monitors, that we peg our self-worth on how many Facebook friends give us a thumbs-up, with our Instagram hearts throbbing for more notches on the proverbial post. Like Narcissus, we are enamored of our own reflections in the (now digitized) mirror. When will we realize that we’ll never get enough thumbs-up to satisfy the ego, no matter how many photos we share, no matter how many witticisms and observations on life we contribute to the Web’s global conversation?
Facebook doesn’t have a “don’t like” option, and that’s definitely not an oversight. It’s only the “likes” that any of us is really interested in. But it’s disingenuous to think that the “somebody self” will ever feel like “somebody enough” by resorting to methods like this.
Yes, the “Me Decade” has stretched out into what I call the “iEra,” an epoch not just dominated by the glut of information but also by the magnification of the “I” who is situated at the nexus of this flurry of communication. But while we have been encouraged to maintain perpetual self-absorption and are inundated with “iProducts” and “iMedia,” the “iEra” can never wholly satisfy the “I” it ceaselessly entices. We remain unhappy and dissatisfied, now more than ever before.
In light of this unprecedented exaltation of the ego and its insatiable need to be acknowledged, fulfilled, pampered, and “liked,” it’s worth reminding ourselves: There is not a single authentic spiritual tradition that enjoins us to be more self-preoccupied, more full of ourselves, or more narcissistic than we already are. When it comes to achieving happiness in life, obsession with the self has traditionally been identified as the problem, not the solution.
As C. S. Lewis wrote way back in 1952, “Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to — whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.”
Until now, perhaps — and much to our detriment.
Prosperity, narcissism, and pandemic depression
Is it just coincidental that, with the narcissism and self-obsession so enshrined in our society, we’re simultaneously witnessing an equally breathtaking increase in the rate of mental illness?
Take depression as just one example. Depression is a debilitating disease — I know! I was hospitalized with a clinical case of depression when I was in my early thirties. I was a complete mess, incapacitated by the inner voice that repeatedly told me I was worthless and that there was nothing I could do to change that. And even run-of-the-mill self-esteem problems, as most everyone can attest, are no picnic in the park.
The statistics tracking our current condition are alarming: The U.S. Department of Health estimates that over 20 million Americans currently suffer from depression. Another source claims that 15.7 percent of the population is depressed. Prescriptions for antidepressants have skyrocketed, rising 400 percent over the past 20 years, with more than one out of ten Americans over the age of 12 now taking these medications. In many places, depression has now become one of the leading causes of absenteeism from work.
It is not an exaggeration to say that depression has become pandemic. The World Health Organization has predicted that by 2020 it will be the second most fatal illness, trumped only by heart disease. Perhaps most shockingly, depression is increasing at astounding rates among young people. In the last thirty years, the United States has seen a 1,000 percent increase in the disease among adolescents.
And it’s not accidental that the precipitous rise in depression has occurred concurrently with two other modern trends, which themselves are interrelated: the dramatic increase in material prosperity in the developed nations, and the parallel obsession with the self, which consumerism encourages, aggravates and excites.
The rates of depression — as well as associated ailments like anxiety and stress, and mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder — have risen precisely in those places where material prosperity has also substantially increased. In little more than a generation, we have gone from a society in which expensive consumer goods, once only available to the elite, are now readily purchasable by the masses: cars (now regularly equipped with cameras, computers, and talking GPS), televisions (now, like the movies, in realistic high-definition or 3D), telephones (they’ve gotten so “smart!”), and computers (formerly only possessions of the government and large research universities, now standard issue, in constantly updated better, faster, and more compact versions). And leisure activities formerly reserved for the mega-rich — including exotic holidays now made possible by nearly universal access to air travel — are currently enjoyed by most of us commoners.
You can’t afford to be depressed if you’re just trying to stay alive. Depression is itself a kind of luxury good, available only to those for whom the material necessities of life are a given. It may not only be one of the entitlements of the economically privileged but also one of the entailments.
In the post-World War II era, we were promised happiness through acquiring and consuming, and for 60-plus years now we’ve dutifully been acquiring and consuming. We all got cashed up and started amassing all kinds of stuff. We began buying ovens and refrigerators even before they became self-cleaning and self-defrosting. We’ve obediently purchased pretty much everything they’ve brought into the marketplace, from transistor radios (remember those?) to iPods; from clunky black-and-white televisions to the sleek fifty-two-inch plasma flat-screens; from pocket calculators to handheld supercomputers.
Maybe by now it has dawned on us that we’ve gotten everything they promised us and much, much more. And isn’t it just as obvious that desires are being created and implanted in order to get us to buy more?
Yeah, so you already have the big black iPod, but now we’ve come up with this white itsy-bitsy model! Last year’s car? It may still run fine, but it’s so outdated!
Either we got everything and are still not satisfied, or we had our expectations raised so high that we feel it’s our right to have everything and then, when we don’t get something, we feel cheated. In either case, since we’ve placed all our hopes for happiness on self-fulfillment through consumerism, when it doesn’t bring us what we expected, well, then there’s a big crash.
Once we have staked our claim on owning everything, we are left with not much of anything when it comes to inner peace and contentment.
It’s not self-help if it’s all about you
It seems quite likely that many of us feel so bad not only because we are encouraged, at every turn, to remain dissatisfied (so we will buy more) but also because of an insistence that we continually brood about how we’re feeling. We’re all constantly keeping our fingers on our own pulse:
Am I OK? Are my needs being met? Am I recognized and appreciated enough? Am I somebody enough yet?
This obsession with the self emanates not only from egocentrism but also from deep insecurity. There’s a dark side to the culture of narcissism — in fact, maybe there’s only a dark side. According to the ancient texts, one of the karmic causes of depression is an overweening interest in oneself at the expense of thinking of others. In a time and place where “it’s all about me” — where the promotion of the first-person pronoun demands a “me first” attitude — it’s no wonder that we’re plunging into depression in unparalleled numbers.
The self is both our best friend and our worst enemy. And it’s only the “best friend self” that can save us from our own self-destructive tendencies; it’s only by improving ourselves that we’ll feel better about ourselves.
Trivializing the pain and suffering that is associated with the mental afflictions brought on by the “somebody-self” mentality is neither compassionate nor fair. But neither is offering panaceas that don’t get at the real root of the problem or, worse, aggravate it by promoting as the cure that which is, in fact, the cause. After all, there are effective and ineffective methods of self-improvement and self-help.
It’s not self-help if it’s all about you. It’s not genuinely self-serving to live only in the service of the ego instead of in the service of others. It’s only through cultivating real humility and an unselfish spirit, and not through indulging in yet more self-absorption, that a healthy and deeply felt self-esteem can emerge.
It’s important that we not mistake humility for self-abasement or confuse depression with self-forgetfulness. An individual with low self-esteem who feels like a “real nobody” is not actually being nobody. Rather he or she is somebody posing as a nobody — and that’s a very different thing.
There’s a kind of perverse pride in the “somebody self” who feels special and exceptional in feeling so bad. And if we imagine that we can help ourselves through more, and not less, self-centeredness — and that includes obsessing about how lousy we feel all the time — our efforts to improve our self-image will inevitably backfire.
…There is a difference between the egoistic “somebody self” who regards itself as worthless — a nothing, a complete zilch — and being nobody. Our limited, personalized, and individual self — which may regard itself with healthy self-esteem or unhealthy self-debasement — is distinct from the unlimited, shared, and universal “nobody self.” Identifying with the latter is quite different from identifying with something contemptible. “Nobody” refers to our ever-present “true self,” our greatest source of joy and strength, the eternal reservoir of peace and contentment to which we repair in order to silence the persistent demands and complaints of the insatiable ego.
Consider this: We all know that it is in those moments when we completely lose ourselves — engrossed in a good book or movie, engaged in an all-consuming task or hobby, or immersed in our child’s or lover’s gaze — that we are truly happy. These experiences point to something extremely important: Our greatest joy comes when we gate ourselves and give ourselves over to something or someone else. It is when we manage to “stand outside of ourselves” (exstasis) that we experience ecstasy.
True and deeply felt self-esteem comes not through the exhausting quest for more and more ego inflation. It comes only when the ego and its endless demands are quieted and quenched, when the lower self is emptied and the fullness and plentitude of the Higher Self arise.
It is only when we stop narrating the play-by-play of our lives and actually start living in an unmediated and direct way that we become really present and fully engaged. It is only when that little voice inside our head finally shuts up that we become wholly assimilated with what’s actually happening, and become truly happy.
It is important to have a good, healthy sense of self-worth, and the point of being nobody is certainly not to become servile, a doormat on which others can trample. But thinking that we will feel fulfilled only if we become more special than others leads to an increase, not a diminishing, of anxiety and dissatisfaction.
Wanting to be somebody unique — or somehow “more unique than others” — is actually quite common: there’s nothing special about wanting to be special. But it is this very drive for radical individuality and superiority that keeps us feeling isolated and alone. In the end, the willingness to let go and be nobody is what’s really extraordinary, and it is the only means for real connection with others and communion with what is real.
Liberation from the anxiety of always feeling that you have to be “somebody” is found only in true selflessness and freedom from the ego’s restrictions, where solace is found in relaxing into life rather than trying endlessly to micromanage it for one’s own selfish ends.
Happiness is ours for the taking, but it cannot be achieved without doing the hard work of letting go of old habits of thinking and acting and plunging into the new and untried.