Only By Being a “Nobody” Can You Begin to Be Somebody

One Last Post on Status Vs. Spirituality

This is going to be my last post about letting go of the need for likes, followers, status, fame. I’ve said almost everything I need to say on the topic. And yet I realize that, until my dying day, it will bother me on some level that the world didn’t do what I wanted it to do for me. I also realize that it doesn’t matter. What the world values is who owns a Maserati and how many diamonds decorate someone’s fingers and neck and whether you have the latest gadget and the smoothest face so people will take you for twenty until you’re eighty-nine. What the world (or a small part of it) values is publication in The Carolina Quarterly and The Paris Review. At readings it is common for writers to be introduced by citing the number of high-prestige journals their work has appeared in. But at graveside memorials it would be an unusual state of affairs to include such advertising in a eulogy—although, come to think of it, that’s exactly the sort of thing one routinely sees on Facebook. Maseratis, diamond rings, fifty-million-dollar estates, Carolina Quarterly, twenty-year-old face—those are the world’s worries, not God’s.

I’ve delved into Christian teachings enough to know one cannot serve two masters. There is the spiritual realm, and there is the material. One cannot honestly aspire to both. A friend once told me the story of how, in searching for a new therapist, he came across one who wore several diamond rings on his fingers, and it even hurt my friend to shake the man’s hand when he left the room. “Why would I ever go back to that therapist?” he said. “He represents everything I’m trying to get away from!” And I have a similar story. One of the most elitist and snootiest people at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, which I attended in the late 1990s, was Jay Parini. I’ll never forget the sight of him physically brushing off an aspiring writer as the young man walked into a classroom seeking advice (it was my roommate—Parini was a bit kinder to me). And now I see he writes for CNN. And I note his latest book is on the life of Paul the Apostle. Why would I ever go to Jay Parini for wisdom on Paul the Apostle or anything else?  He represents everything I’m trying to get away from.

Lately I’ve begun to help the homeless. Sometimes I seek them out and give them five-dollar bills. I know it’s not much. Yesterday outside a Starbucks in West Hollywood, a homeless man asked me for money and I turned around and gave him a dollar. He said it wouldn’t be enough to buy food so I gave him three dollars and he thanked me and said “God bless you.” If I had it to do over again, I would not only have given him some money, but would have asked him what he wanted from the coffee house and bought it for him. Well, next time…

I can imagine my old Barcelona psychoanalyst, a strict Freudian, shaking her head and scoffing at what she would probably call my “God delusion.” I can visualize my old Scottish Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist/Pol-Potist roommate turning in his grave (he died in 2017) and railing against my “idiocy” and “naiveté.” Let them scoff and laugh. In front of the supermarket a woman asked me for money and I gave her some and she asked me if I was a believer in Jesus Christ and I said I was. She said she would return the favor if I ever needed help someday.

There was a time in 2015, after signing up for Twitter, that I began to tweet and count my followers. I celebrated whenever I had a new follower. Five years later, I can count 150, a number slowly dwindling since I don’t tweet anymore. Often over the last few years I’ve commented on YouTube hoping for likes and, even with insightful and elegantly phrased comments, I was lucky to get three likes, while a thirteen-year-old whose sage utterances are riddled with misspellings, gets seven thousand thumbs-up. I got to a point where I couldn’t compete in the world of likes. In 2014-2017 I wrote a good memoir but eighty different literary agents said no. And at roughly the same time I attended the AWP convention in Los Angeles, where a huge convention center filled up with thousands of writers, publishers, agents, etc. I happened to glance over at a panel discussion which took place, not in a separate room, but on the edges of the colossal main convention floor. Six or seven people sat in the panel discussion with a handful of people as their audience. And yet several of the panelists were wistfully gazing over at the thousands milling about the great hall who were not listening and would never hear or care about their talk.

I attended a Sunday service yesterday and got a lot out of the sermon. The pastor talked about the Greek word for “sin”—hamartia. This is a term used in archery meaning “missing the mark.” It is also a way of describing a “tragic flaw” in Greek drama. And I was reminded of my statement to a friend when I came back from my trip to the mountains last summer: “I haven’t been on the right track in life.” I spent almost sixty years focusing on my own version of a Maserati.

I have decided not to send out any more work for publication. If someone wants something I’ve written and they come to me, I will accept—gladly. But it was getting too hard to send work to some very mediocre journals and always hear no. I could no longer base my state of mind on the endorphin rush caused by some 19-year-old in faraway Podunk typing a casual yes (Yes Alex You’re a Poet and We Love You). One result of this? I now write more poems than ever. And if they only “live” in my desk drawer, that’s fine: it’s the process of writing that I love. Recently, after a workshop, the facilitator came up to me and asked for my work for his website. And late last year an actor came to me to work with me on a new play. These are small things. Yes, it does bother me that the actor too often mentions “fame” and that his favorite play of all time is called Famous… I take a deep breath, and withhold the sermon.

I’ve started praying for my enemies—fortunately they aren’t in my life, but they are still living, albeit faraway. I wish them the best health and happiness and do it in sincerity. I have been able to let go of so much anger against the woman who took half of my inheritance. Jesus asks a lot from us but gives a lot in return.

I came across this quote in Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island: “The one who has most in the realm of the spirit is the one who loves least in the order of the flesh.” And, on a more macro level: here’s a quote from Galatians 2:20:  “It is no longer I that lives but Christ that lives in me.”  And we can say with our friend the Old Possum: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

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6 thoughts on “Only By Being a “Nobody” Can You Begin to Be Somebody

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Alex. KEep going with the humility and keep going with the writing

  2. I am tearing up! Thank You so so much for this post! Beautuful honesty I have always loved in your work! This is more, it literally ministered to me !
    Thank you Alex!
    You are a light!

  3. helping the homeless is something we should all be doing more of. I think you may want to still consider submitting as you try out new stylistic approaches. Last year’s model can always be different from this year’s.

  4. I give you thumbs up
    and I am all thumbs
    that’s how much I like you

    We have known each other for decades
    We have been growing up together
    You are the brother I wished for as an only child
    XO – T

  5. Looks to me like you are on the road to wisdom. It’s not an easy trek. Maybe we never fully arrive but like you say the pleasure comes moving along the road. We have to move to have experience and learn from it. It doesn’t count, if we don’t.

    I have enjoyed observing your progression, since we met in Barcelona, even though we’re far away from each other now. I’m grateful to have you as a friend. Also, thanks for copy of the poetry collection ‘A Decade of Sundays’.

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