It. Occurs. To. Me.
Emily Dickenson’s well-loved poem portrays the tension felt between the desire to be Somebody along with the relief that we are Nobody.
“I’m Nobody, who are you?
Are you Nobody Too?
Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog.
To tell your name, the livelong day
To an admiring bog! (Emily Dickinson)
This poem was first published in 1891. It blows my mind that over a hundred years ago Emily Dickenson–largely known as a recluse and struggling with depression–so beautifully articulates how so many of us feel,130 years later. How did she do that? What was the equivalent to Instagram in the 1890s? Today it’s 10 thousand likes. What was it then? Being on the front page and recognized at the Yacht Club?
What has changed?
On the days that I am stressed out, pushing too hard, swimming upstream, and working myself into the ground, I reach for this: how dreary to be somebody. It’s a salve for my soul. My shoulders drop, my jaw relaxes, my mind expands, and all that is in this moment, right here, is more than enough.
You already are somebody Molly. You don’t need stronger thighs, thicker hair, longer eyelashes, or more likes. Phew.
Dickinson’s ‘Nobody’ doesn’t indicate insignificance, smallness, or irrelevance. I think it means free to be. Free to be yourself. Unforced. Without pressure. Without performance. The pressure we all feel to do more and be more. Once you have 10 thousand likes, does life feel not worth living if you drop to 9K?
I am victim to the relentless push in life. I always have been. Even when I didn’t have a cell phone or a smart watch. There is always more: more to do, more to see, more to be accomplished. For years I performed. It exhausts me to just think of it. How wonderful it is to be totally content with is. Where strife and striving are far out at sea and here at the water’s edge, is nothing but a consistent lapping heartbeat. From time to time, I get swept out and I feel like I am not enough. In the age of social media, I have a million opportunities to feel badly about myself on any given day. My life isn’t good enough. My hair isn’t shiny enough. My skin isn’t tight enough. My butt isn’t big enough. My lawn isn’t green enough. My house isn’t clean enough.
My hero, my grandmother, was a huge fan of Emily Dickenson. Staying with her one summer I found a book of Dickenson’s poems on her shelf. We read them together. My grandmother was semi-famous. She certainly was well known within her circles. She owned a thriving business in a popular and expensive destination town. She was attractive, wealthy, and pursued. If she were 20 years old today she would have had way more than 10 thousand likes. Except, she probably would have chosen to keep her wall phone and would never say anything to anybody about why. I imagine that she would have wanted a Facebook account as much as a heart attack. In the 1970s and 1980s, Instagram bling didn’t exist, but cars did, and Grandma didn’t own one. She could have afforded whatever she wanted, times 10. Something classy, something flashy. What she wanted was to ride the bus, so she did. Where you can talk to people and look out the window. When you walked into her home the first thing you saw was a sign that read “My house was clean last week, sorry you missed it.”
I’ll never forget her.
Why I love this poem so much, along with millions of others, is because it reminds us of the ridiculousness of performing to an admiring bog. Emily Dickenson was not famous during her lifetime. She certainly didn’t have an admiring bog. Biographies suggest that she didn’t socialize, go out, or have many friends…so how did she achieve such insight? In silence, in meditation, in conversation with God we know more about ourselves and our world than our world can ever tell us.