Somebody Vs. Nobody

A paper I wrote for my sophomore English class in the second semester:
If you’re reading any media aimed at teenagers, what is one piece of advice that is sure to be squished in somewhere? “Be yourself.” This seems like pretty solid advice, but the problem is that at this age of maturity, nobody knows what being his or herself even is. I certainly don’t. We have slivers of ideas of what ourselves are, some contradicting themselves, some short-lived, some spot-on. How is “be yourself” good advice?
Certainly “be yourself” assumes that I am somebody.
As people, we have a natural sense to be known by others, to be “somebody” to others. People think that doing something will get them something in return, sometimes, an identity. We are known for what we do: a teacher teaches, a mathematician does math, a writer writes, an artist makes art, a liar lies, a cheater cheats, a murderer murders. If you do nothing, then you must be a nobody. By valuing our actions above all else, we place ourselves into the very labels and stereotypes we struggle with every day.
So we are known for what we do, but as members of Western culture we also experience pressure from society to be individual in personality and actions. Being individual is one of biggest pressures I have ever experienced. I have such a fear of being cliché, and so many others in our American world do as well. How many times has matching prom dresses been the conflict of the plotline of a made-for-TV teen drama? The dread to be the same as anyone else, even through such a superficial thing as a prom dress, is evident through our media and conversations.
Individuality seems to have become a god in our culture; it represents perfection and true identity. Being unique is the way that one can become a person. I am not condemning the message that everyone is unique in his or her own way, but to call attention to the value and priority that this “uniqueness” has gained in our society. The question must be asked, if everyone is striving to show off his or her own individuality, doesn’t that mean everyone is doing the same thing and therefore not as individual as they think?
In the past two months, I read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a book which explores the struggle against humanity’s egotistical behavior as a confused and overwhelmed young adult through spirituality. The book focuses on the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” The purpose of the Jesus Prayer is to reach, through repetition, a point where even as your heart beats, it recites the prayer. Your being is supposed to be consumed by the mercy Christ offers, similar to the nirvana described in Buddhism. It is a “nothingness” within an “everythingness” in some ways.
As Franny endures the struggle of finding her identity, she says to her beau, “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” The most striking part of this statement is the word “courage.” When has doing nothing or being nobody ever been courageous? Being nobody is doing nothing or being notoriously unknown: it’s lazy, unmotivated, not standing out, going nowhere…there is nothing courageous about that. But I think, in this, Franny is talking about a different kind of nobody, an honorable one.
Maybe being a nobody isn’t just doing nothing; maybe being nobody is not boasting of doing something great.
Imagine being in some hoity-toity college for theater like Franny, surrounded by people seeking success, fame, and unique expression: seeking the outstanding. This environment pushes, and pushes, and pushes for one to be somebody. How terribly exhausting, how frightening. Seeking attention is unsatisfying and overwhelming because true assurance and stability can’t come from any audience or peer.
Franny makes being “an absolute nobody” a courageous deed. She’s tired of the egotistical behavior of people, the vying for attention, the insecurity in the very places we put ourselves with our definitive identities through actions. She is tired of being known for the superficial things she doesn’t believe are worth her identity; she is exhausted with not feeling free enough to let go of the things that don’t matter. She feels that she needs to uphold a mask of “somebody,” even though it means nothing. This is why freeing herself of unimportant matters is courage.
Maybe being an absolute nobody is actually an act of humility. After all, God asks us to be unknown in our prayer and service to others (Matthew 6:3,6). He says we should not be known by these actions, but known through Him and through our love for others inspired by Him (John 13:35). When we become Christians, we’re supposed to “set aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all,” as sung in the Orthodox Christian liturgy. We’re to receive God and represent Him to others, letting His Holy Spirit fill us.
We’re asked to be an absolute nobody, an honorable, holy, courageous nobody.