I’m Sick of Not Having the Courage to Be an Absolute Nobody

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger


“’I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. 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 not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of splash.’”

Joe’s Rating: 5/5 (“Well, it’s perfect to me.)

The stories “Franny” (1955) and “Zooey” (1957) originally appeared separately in The New Yorker, and they weren’t published together as Franny and Zooey until 1961. J.D. Salinger, one of my favorite writers ever, hits the nail on the head with this work as far as my own life is concerned. His text affects me on more than just a literary level, but on a personal and visceral one.

I’ll spare you the spoilers, but Franny, one of the precocious children in the Glass Family who appear throughout Salinger’s other works, goes through an ego-related crisis, and her sagacious and loving brother Zooey guides her toward resolution in an absolutely heartwarming exchange upon the end of “Zooey”.

“’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. It’s disgusting—it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says.’”

This book resonates with me so much because everything we do is—to some degree, whether we realize it or not—a projection of our egos (when I say ego, I do mean it in the more general, egotistical and self-conscious sense and not so much in the Freudian context), and I’ve gotten to the point where it becomes hard to bear. I’ve wasted hours of time trying to convince myself otherwise but to no avail. Egotism is everywhere and in everything we do, and everything that I do is starting to become pretty pointless to me.

Introduce me to the egoless human, and I will be his or her unabashed servant and student until the end of time.

“It’s everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much only in a different way.”

I wake up in the morning because I think that I can go out in the world and do something for myself or for others, and by doing something for others, I’m doing something for myself by satisfying this selfish desire of mine to do something for others, rather than helping people for the sake of helping people. Does that make sense? I also have a selfish desire to always make sense because I believe that when I make sense I’m actually doing some good for people, which is rather egotistical in itself, no? Why do you think I’m writing this to you now, dear reader? Helping others makes me feel like I’m worth something, but why I can’t I be worth something for merely existing in the first place?

I brush my teeth because I want to be recognized for having clean teeth. I style my hair a certain way because I want to be recognized for having a decent hairdo. I dress a certain way because I want to be recognized for being fashionable. I eat because I don’t want to be hungry, and sometimes I don’t eat because I’d rather sleep. I work, ultimately, because I need money. I go on dates because I don’t want to be lonely. I make friends because deep down I know that I can get something out of them, whether it’s moral support, comfort, or a new way of viewing the world. I do my best to maintain relationships with people because the thought of never seeing anybody that I really like ever again greatly, greatly disturbs me, and I don’t like to feel that way. EVERYTHING we do is self-serving and self-centered to an extent, even in the most minute ways, and I get so frustrated because there are people—including myself—who are completely unaware of how utterly selfish they really are.

A friend once told me I had a fragile ego. I was broken because it was true.

Which brings me to the things that I’m most passionate about: reading and writing. I read because I want knowledge that’s going to benefit me in some way, and I write things for other people to read because I want—no, I need—to be recognized and remembered. When you realize the important things in your life that keep you going are perhaps just as superficially based as the rest of the things that you do, that really messes with your head. Without recognition for doing the things I’m passionate about, what’d be the point of it all? I try to be satisfied with my writing on my own terms and take ephemeral pleasure in the task, but that’s just the thing; my writing is ephemeral unless other people recognize it, pass it on and allow it to survive in perpetuity, and what have I published other than some meaningless blog posts? I will die some day just as my writing will. If I’m not remembered, I’m nothing, and if I’m not remembered during my lifetime, well, I’d have to go somewhere far away from everybody just so I could forget about all of you people. I wouldn’t be able to live if I weren’t remembered, and that’s how awfully egotistical I am; I truly disgust myself sometimes.

“Sometimes I see me dead in the rain.”

I see it in the hyper-competitive nature of the academic system, among both professors and students alike; I see it in the workplace, where workers are always trying to make themselves look competent to others; I see it at parties, where people are trying to make themselves look attractive to others; I see it all over social media—many convince themselves that they’re of the utmost importance to everyone that they know (you know, the ‘I’m so popular that I can’t make any time for myself and especially you’ kind of people, I know that you’ve encountered them), and all of this for what?

“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”

Organizations hold philanthropy events so that they can help others, but their representatives do so while hoping that their public image isn’t tarnished if the event goes badly. Politicians are concerned about their campaigns—in the end—for the sake of their image so that they can win the election, even if they do genuinely want to help people.

“I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect….”

That’s the thing: collectively or individually, we go through the motions of our lives hoping that our actual selves will come to represent the ideal selves that we long to be. This desire to better yourself and receive praise for the things that you do is absolutely egotistical, even if it is necessary for your survival and happiness. I know the concerns of others should hardly be a concern of mine, but it’s tough living when you know deep in your heart that you are just as much of an egomaniac as the people that you criticize. I know I shouldn’t criticize you, my dear reader, but I need to address the egotism of the human being. My conscience won’t rest until I do so honestly.

“’But don’t go screaming about egos in general. In my opinion, if you really want to know, half the nastiness in the world is stirred up by people who aren’t using their true egos.’”

We (it’d be less malicious to say ‘I’ rather than “we” here, but to say ‘I’ would just obfuscate the meaning of my message for the sake of maintaining a positive self-image) subscribe so heavily to this notion of maintaining a positive self-image that we often forget how myopic our own perceptions of ourselves are and how meaningless our own existences are. I’m just one person out of approximately seven billion people on this planet, and just like many others, I get so caught up in my own thoughts and feelings that I forget this and delude myself into thinking I actually matter in the grand scheme of things—that because the people in my life seem to like me and want to be with me I therefore matter, but I really don’t. Please, don’t try to convince me otherwise. Love matters. Friendship matters. Compassion matters. Kindness matters. There are plenty of people who can provide these things for you. I don’t matter. People will continue to thrive with or without me. I’m aware that people out there care about me; I’m aware my family loves me to pieces; I’m aware that I make a difference to those around me, but please don’t try to convince me that everyone is going to be absolutely distraught when I’m gone. They won’t—that’s the sad fact of it all, and the world isn’t going to stop revolving when you’re gone either. People will find a way to move on as long as they exist.

“’Can’t you see how unclearly, how sloppily, you’re looking at things? My God, there’s absolutely nothing tenth-rate about you, and yet you’re up to your neck at this minute in tenth-rate thinking.’”

And they always do move on. I hate it. I hope you hate it too. I absolutely detest you people sometimes—you people make me sick to my stomach sometimes—because I love you people, perhaps a little too much, and I hate it when you move on. It makes my blood boil and my body sweat; my muscles tighten and I grow nauseous. I hate knowing that I’m replaceable and disposable, but that’s just the nature of human relationships. Proximity brings us together, distance tears us apart, and what is forced seems to usually dissipate and disappear into thin air. You’ll meet other friends, other lovers, other people with whom you can revel in the pleasures of life; you’ll go your way, I’ll go mine, and that’s that.

“’God damn it,’ he said, ‘there are nice things in the world—and I mean nice things. We’re all such morons to get so sidetracked. Always, always, always referring every goddam thing that happens right back to our lousy little egos.’”

However, it’d be utterly foolish and self-centered of me to say that you have never done anything for me. You have, and I’m grateful for what I have. Sure, I hate a lot of things, even myself at times, but maybe a lot of people just hate me. I can deal with that possibility.

“The next thing that bothers me,” he said, “isn’t pretty, either. But I’m almost finished, so hang on a second if you can. What I don’t like at all is this little hair-shirty private life of a martyr you’re living back at college—this little snotty crusade you think you’re leading against everybody. And I don’t mean what you may think I mean, so try not to interrupt for a second. I take it that mostly you’re gunning against the system of higher education. Don’t spring at me, now— for the most part, I agree with you. But I hate the kind of blanket attack you’re making on it. I agree with you about ninety-eight per cent on the issue. But the other two per cent scares me half to death. I had one professor when I was in college—just one, I’ll grant you, but he was a big, big one—who just doesn’t fit in with anything you’ve been talking about. He wasn’t Epictetus. But he was no egomaniac, he was no faculty charm boy. He was a great and modest scholar. And what’s more, I don’t think I ever heard him say anything, either in or out of a classroom, that didn’t seem to me to have a little bit of real wisdom in it—and sometimes a lot of it. What’ll happen to him when you start your revolution?’”

While the seeming ubiquity of egotism greatly bothers me, I find comfort in the fact that it is not absolute in our actions. I don’t believe our actions operate upon this binary of egotism and non-egotism; our actions are indeed a mixture of the two. We want to look good to others, but most of us want to help each other be happy too. Don’t you ever try to argue that you are a completely selfless human being though, because you’d be dead and you’d have nothing for yourself if this were truly the case. Here, I stand against those who deny that they are selfish, not those who are selfish.

“Here Zooey, still looking at the ceiling, simultaneously grimaced and shook his head. ‘But what I don’t like —and what I don’t think either Seymour or Buddy would like, either, as a matter of fact— is the way you talk about all these people. I mean you don’t just despise what they represent —you despise them. It’s too damn personal, Franny. I mean it. You get a real little homicidal glint in your eye when you talk about this Tupper, for instance. All this business about his going into the men’s room to muss his hair before he comes in to class. All that. He probably does—it goes with everything else you’ve told me about him. I’m not saying it doesn’t. But it’s none of your business, buddy, what he does with his hair. It would be all right, in a way, if you thought his personal affectations were sort of funny. Or if you felt a tiny bit sorry for him for being insecure enough to give himself a little pathetic goddam glamour. But when you tell me about it—and I’m not fooling, now—you tell me about it as though his hair was a goddam personal enemy of yours. That is not right—and you know it. If you’re going to go to war against the System, just do your shooting like a nice, intelligent girl—because the enemy’s there, and not because you don’t like his hairdo or his goddam necktie.’”

By the way, what you decide to do in your life is none of my business, even if it bothers me, and I can live with that—I really can. You don’t owe me a thing. I should be more concerned about my own life. Something is missing. I’m trying to find it. I have my own demons that I’m fighting. All in all, I’d be nothing without you. I need you.

“In the first place, you’re way off when you start railing at things and people instead of at yourself.”

So, be happy. Be well. Because…

“You’re lucky if you get time to sneeze in this goddam phenomenal world.”



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