The thought of being a nobody going nowhere is, at best, mildly depressing. It’s also the kind of thought that tends to figure highly in morose alcohol-fuelled conversations and bouts of the January blues. If persistent, it can lead straight to a therapist’s consulting room.
There are ways of working with it. We could, for instance, reflect on what being a “somebody” means in our value system. Then we could set goals likely to lead us towards a graduation from being a nobody to being a somebody. And then, we think, then we’ll be happy.
But perhaps there are better ways of dealing with such distressing thoughts. After all, the perception of being a nobody only makes sense in relation to the somebodies out there that we are comparing ourselves with. That’s not a promising start. If we hanker after transformations based on comparison, we are bound to be disappointed. There will always be people who are bigger somebodies than us.
We could turn to Buddhism for a refreshing perspective on the issue. From this point of view, we are all nobodies going nowhere, since the self has no enduring reality. This is one of the most fully developed examples of the view that warns us against becoming too attached to aspects of life that are impermanent and have no intrinsic value. “The spiritual path is all about letting go”, writes the late Buddhist nun Ayya Khema in her book Being Nobody Going Nowhere. “There is nothing to achieve or gain.”
But whether you buy into the full-blown theory or not, we need to take some care. There is a danger of using this perspective as a rationale for not making the effort to move towards the things we value in life. As the old Woody Allen joke goes: “If nothing exists, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”
So let’s liberate ourselves from the idea that we need to become a somebody and simply focus on where we want to be and what we want to do.
It’s not difficult to make people invisible. Just pan out so far that they become the smallest of blips in the immeasurable vastness of time and space, or zoom in so close that they become reduced to bundles of atoms, blindly obeying the rules of physics as purposelessly as space dust. One way reduces us to the particles of which we are made, the other to particles from which the universe is made.
Bertrand Russell managed to combine both these outlooks in a withering demolition of humanity’s sense of importance. “In the visible world,” he wrote in 1919, “the Milky Way is a tiny fragment; within this fragment, the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and of this speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded.”
It is perhaps not coincidental that these words were written at the end of the bloodiest war in human history, in which so many lives were lost without appearing to serve any purpose.
But it is odd to think that only telescopes and microscopes can get the reality of our lives in focus, when the naked eye remains the most reliable tool for clearly observing what surrounds us. It is as though we assume that which we cannot usually see is more real than that which we can.
I think the trouble is that we are not content with the modest scale of our lives. We want them to matter at the ultimate or fundamental level, not just at the one of “medium-sized dry goods”, as the philosopher J.L. Austin memorably put it. My bet is that if we were atoms, we would yearn to be as significant as the objects we comprised; and if we were the timeless, eternal universe, we would long to participate in the local dramas going on within it. No matter what niche we occupied on the cosmic scale from micro to macro, the grass would always be greener at the other size.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.
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