The Wisdom in Being a Nobody

Among the wreckage of our bruised and battered egos is a haze of grace


“All I know is I’m losing my mind,” Franny said. “I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting…Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.”
Franny & Zooey, J.D. Salinger

It was the summer of 2020. You know the one. We were in the throws of the Covid-19 Pandemic, George Floyd, and an election. Most of our news was delivered to us through our screens, whether through the ones mounted on the wall or in our hands. And most of us absorbed this news alone or within our small bubbles.

I’m in my kitchen, cleaning. I pause for a break and check my Instagram. Immediately I’m faced with footage of George Floyd lying on the ground with a cop’s knee on his neck. 

A Splash of News by Janell Downing

I’m supposed to be sleeping, but I’m up late again reading way too much information on the Pandemic. Mass burials in India, overflow tents in New York, and too many graphs to decipher and predict. 

It was a time when we desperately needed a clear voice ringing out of the noise. 

There were none.

I think about what it would have been like if all of this happened, but before the dawn of instant information. It would be comical imagining myself trying to consume as much information, advice, and opinions as I do now. It’d be like constant newspapers being thrown at my face. Look at me! Read me! Just one more and then you’ll fully understand and feel at peace.

I grab at them, while going about my day. Read a little here, a little there. It’s jolting, hurried; even violent. 

I am guilty of joining this cacophony of voices. But if I were to look a bit deeper with compassion, I would see myself in a sea of humanity desperate for connection. We just live in an age that prides itself on bypassing connection for the sake of efficiency and acceleration.

Looking back in my journal, I found this – dated November 5th, 2020 (Remember, Remember):

Make no mistake,
We deserve no parade.
The hurt is immense.
Our own words have
wounded us,
Our burdens of the past 
haunt us,
Our anxieties for the future 
halt us. 
Our fear of each other will
bury us. 
Is now the time we turn and look each other in the eye?
Who will save us from ourselves?
Christ have mercy. 


painting by Scott Listfield, 2017

It’s a mad, lonely world if I allow myself to truly be swallowed whole. But I’ve forgotten something. I have the hope of Christ in me. What would the wisdom of God say? What would we find under the din of our voices? After all the arguments and theories have been pinned down; lifeless shells of exhausted desires. We are tired and we just want to go home. I believe that underneath it all, there awaits a silence so audible that it can only be explained as the wisdom of God. Among the wreckage of our bruised and battered egos is a haze of grace hovering over our chaotic waters ready to bring all things together in Him. 

In Shannan Martin’s book, Start With Hello, we receive a brave and humble picture of what it’s like to truly connect with others in our current time and place:

“Proximity is an excellent starting point, but sharing a zip code alone will not get us to a place of mutual trust and care, both of which are acts of wisdom and will. We excel at multitasking – to our detriment. Maybe it’s just me, but too often I see “listening” as one more task to complete – one I can easily wrap around other items on my to-do list that seem more urgent or productive. I run errands while listening to the news. I squeeze in current events podcasts while prepping dinner. I catch up on voice messages while tidying up or taking a walk. Even showing becomes a passive opportunity to DO MORE.”

I have literally done all of these. Wisdom would say, stop. Where are you? When I am everywhere, I am nowhere. I float through chores and people like a sieve and my body is numb. My gut is upset, my neck hurts, come to think of it – my head hurts. And I don’t remember the last time I took a deep breath.

For those of us who are parents, we see that same frenzy mirrored back. Several times, my son has told me, “Mom, I’m telling you something. I need to see your eyes.” Shame and criticism rise quickly to my cheeks, and in a split second I am given the grace to respond. “You’re right buddy. I’m sorry. I see you.” Even more, I need to be seen. 

One of the most freeing yet convicting pieces of parenting advice I’ve received is that our kids want to be just like us. In other words, it’s not about the rules and all the structure we try to lay down, it’s about what they see. And who are they watching? Me! They want to be safe, seen, soothed, and heard. And in that moment, when my eyes meet my son’s and I shake myself back into the present moment, wisdom says, there you are! If these needs are not being met first, things like structure and rules go out the window. They are a cheap fix.

Here’s where conviction arrives. As Franny says, why am I so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values? “Just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right.” This is the human condition. Some of us feel the pull for applause stronger than others, but we all feel it. Lady Wisdom from Proverbs 8 beckons us and Jeremiah 6:16 invites us to stand at the crossroads. 

This is what the Lord says:

“Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.
    But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’

“Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand;”

Again, grace and wisdom are found in the confessions of Agur, Proverbs 30. 

“I am weary God, but I can prevail. Surely I am only a brute, not a man; I do not have human understanding. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One. Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know!”

In reading Agur’s confessions, I can acknowledge that actually, I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what it’s like to have wisdom. I don’t have all the knowledge and I certainly don’t know how to relationally live well with other people, let alone myself. Pride would say this is only Agur’s problem. Wisdom would say this is my problem. What do we do when we are faced with that silence so audible? We might cringe and worm, throw a fit, deflect and tell our loved ones “it doesn’t matter.” To sit with our need alone is impossible, but to sit in our need with someone else willing to listen and in addition, who won’t leave the room no matter what comes out of our mouths. This is the great journey of our lives. To stand at the crossroads and ask for the good and ancient way.

Think about what this is like for us today. We are barely given the time and space to stand, let alone ask. But this is the way we are called to walk. This is the way that Jesus walks, the One who Lady Wisdom foreshadows and the One who seems foolish to the world. The One in whose presence, we can boast of nothing. The best part is, He is on that path calling for us, asking us to be curious about our lives. He says it’s ok, get back up. We’re gonna try again and I am with you and never will leave you. He just keeps coming back to us, re-membering us as we remember our stories, writing new ones as we hold onto that wounded hand. Without this ancient way with Him, we won’t experience the life we’re looking for.

  • Janell Downing

    Janell Downing lives in Portland, OR with her husband and two boys. She holds a BS in Theology & Music from Multnomah University and is currently on her way to become a Spiritual Director. She enjoys living a life of hospitality for weary travelers of the faith with books, movies, coffee, and music always close by. You can find more of her writing at Substack and Mockingbird.

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