A beautiful new installment of The NY Times’ series on Anxiety appeared this past weekend, “On Being Nothing” by Brian Jay Stanley. It’s a personal reflection on a universal reality: our undying need for affirmation from other people. Whether it be praise in the workplace, mail in the inbox, the right hand to hold, fans in the bleachers (or cyberspace), we seem to be hardwired to require, or at least yearn for, external approval. Stanley describes the process of growing up in very sympathetic terms, namely, as the process by which the inborn view of ourselves as the center of the universe–what we might term “original sin”–and the anxiety that such a view creates, is shed in favor of a more humble and ultimately much more peaceful one, with failure and suffering being the primary means by which this happens (and bitterness being the consequence of its avoidance). Theologically speaking, he is talking about the Old Adam, the inner lawyer, the ego, whatever you want to call it–that part of us which is involved in the endless task of trying to justify ourselves before our neighbors and God (primarily via accomplishment and blame), trolling every interaction for some shred of affirmation or condemnation. The part of us which must be put out of its misery if we are to experience any kind of contentment. But before I reduce the piece any more, which really deserves to be read as a whole, here are a few excerpts.
A store needs customers, a speaker needs listeners, a publisher needs subscribers. I use others as surely as others use me. They are not my enemies but individuals trying to live and succeed, just as I am. Nevertheless, all those individuals added together make up the world, and the world is cruel. At every stage of life, we desire to be noticed and affirmed by others. Infants are born craving affection as much as milk. Children playing do not require the active involvement of nearby adults, but if you try to leave they demand that you watch them play. Adolescents, in their perpetual anxiety to be popular, do not so much look at others through their own eyes as look constantly at themselves through others’ eyes. Those who are dying worry about being remembered after death, though when dead, how can they care if they’re forgotten? As adults, our successes give us little pleasure unless sweetened by others’ admiration.
Upon reflection, a desire for recognition seems irrational. Since we live in our own minds, why should we care what thoughts are in the minds of others? Is this not like a Canadian fretting about the weather in Mexico? How to explain this need for notice is debatable. Are we so doubtful of our worth that others must attest to it? Conversely, are we so certain of our worth that others must bow down to it?
Growing up in a small town, I had an audience. I knew everyone at church, at school, on opposing sports teams. Everyone else knew everyone, too. Thus we were all one another’s audience. This did not always make life pleasant; one had an audience for one’s failures as well as one’s successes. But it made life meaningful. Everything counted because someone was watching.
A decisive break in my life occurred when I left town after high school. My well-nurtured ego thought of the outside world as the waiting arena of my actions, where all humanity was expectantly assembled for me, yet when I arrived I found that no one knew my name nor wished to learn it; I was a king without any subjects.
Society is adroit at disillusioning newcomers, and many self-assured children grow up to be bitter adults. But bitterness, instead of a form of disillusionment, is really the refusal to give up your childhood illusions of importance. Ignored instead of welcomed by the world, you fault the world as blind and evil in order not to fault yourself as naïve. Bitterness is a child’s coddling narcissism within the context of an adult’s harsh life. Instead, I know that the world only tramples me as a street crowd does an earthworm — not out of malice or stupidity, but because no one sees it. Thus my pain is not to feel wrongly slighted, but to feel rightly slighted.
There must be a Copernican revolution of the self. Instead of pointlessly cursing the sun to go around me, my chance of contentment is learning to orbit, being the world’s audience instead of demanding the world be mine. If the world is a stage, then everyone’s an extra, acting minor roles in simultaneous scenes in which no one has the lead. With so much happening, society is poorly made to satisfy pride, but well made to satisfy interest, if we will only let go of our vanity and join the swirl of activity.
Stanley hones in here on a significant part of what makes the good news of the Gospel so good. God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves–nailing our narcissistic instincts (and the vast dysfunction and harm they cause) to a cross, and rising again, so that the starting point of our identity might be one of Grace, not works (or public opinion). Life lived in this, um, light is, theoretically at least, a life of freedom. A life where we can own up to our shortcomings, independent of what they might say about us; see the world for what it is, rather than what we might wish it would be; engage with others for their own sake, as opposed to what they might be able to do for us; essentially, no longer demand from the Law that which it cannot deliver. This is more than a “different” life – it’s a new one. That is, Stanley calls it a “revolution”; I prefer “rebirth.”