It all started about a month ago, maybe more, with the realization that I was not destined for great things. For most people, that’s a trivial thing; we’ve already let go of it by our second year of college. How I managed to cling to that grandiosity halfway into fifty-three is anyone’s guess. I wrote screenplays that never sold, was in a band that never made it, and many other things.
In fact, it only got worse. Twenty years or so ago, I was inspired to write the following, which I used as an email signature for awhile:
Let mine be the hands that will free all living things from suffering.
No, really, I wrote that. And then I set out to make it happen. I rolled the dice on a top school, sinking hundreds of thousands into debt to study and keep a roof over my wife’s head the while. I tried to groom myself to bend the ears of senators and CEOs, tried to foster those all-important connections without which nothing ever gets done. I feverishly devoured statistics, psychology, politics, economics, a bit of law and philosophy… I was gonna save the world.
And it all went wrong.
I lost job after job, mostly because powerful people don’t take kindly to reality checks. No one gets paid to tell The Man what he doesn’t want to hear, or at least, not for very long.
I even ran a hopeless race for Congress, because no one else would challenge our crooked incumbent. He never even had to campaign (though he amassed a gigantic campaign fund). He just ignored me and bullied the press into doing the same.
I sank into depression, then mental illness. I fancied myself a revolutionary, and admonished liberal leftists to arm and prepare for societal collapse. Surely, my destiny was to go down swinging, in some heroic stand against The Man.
Didn’t happen either.
Since then I’ve worked either survival-level jobs or not at all, seeing more to the well-being and sanity of my wonderful wife, who is disabled. On those points I’ve no regrets, but they continued to chip away at my sense of self until I felt I no longer existed. If indeed I ever did. Destiny, I realized, was a thing that could exist in an ordered universe, not this entropic one.
I tried to let go of ‘me’, let go of my snowballing sense of failure, let go of my resentment toward seemly less-deserving people and the greater fortune they enjoyed, let go of my hatred for those in power and their notions of self-evident superiority.
I thought about looking for a spiritual path again. Being vaguely familiar with Buddhism and sharing some philosophical ground in common, I started there. At one point I learned of those people who had taken the vow of the Bodhisattva, renouncing even heaven until all sentient beings found enlightenment and peace, however many karmic cycles that took. Swearing to codes of conduct that disciplined and diminished the self, swearing that their lives would be about spreading forgiveness and compassion.
Then I remembered what I had written twenty years earlier.
That was it. That was all I ever wanted. I had just been going about it all wrong, trying to make myself into someone important enough to listen to. Trying to earn degrees and titles to tack onto my name somewhere, trying to satisfy the prerequisites that this world requires just to gain its permission to do some good work.
I’d made it all about me instead of the work. Why should I care if I can’t get any acknowledgment or make a comfortable living at it? Just. Do. The work.
I don’t need the ears of Presidents or celebrities; what suffering did they ever alleviate with my input? There’s good to be done every minute of every day, by hooking someone up with a job lead, or offering a spare bus pass to someone in obvious need, or just wishing the cashier a good day in such a way that they know you actually mean it.
Good exists; you just have to keep it moving forward. Sometimes you have to create it out of thin air. People who are “somebody” can’t do that; the wealthiest and most powerful people are suffering themselves. They’re supremely empty, and can’t understand why ever-escalating self-indulgence doesn’t fill that great hole inside. They are people to be pitied, not envied and certainly not emulated.
I am nobody special. And instead of being despondent over it, I choose to let it empower me. I no longer need to prove anything; I don’t need anyone’s permission to simply give someone a reason to smile and hope. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll pass that along, and so on. I am a god with a little ‘g’, the Buddha incarnate.
Just like you.