On a scale of one to ten, how good of a cog are you? How well do you function in your assigned role? How much of a man or woman are you? How do you rate yourself as a son or daughter, father or mother, wife or husband, heterosexual or homosexual, liberal or conservative, black or white, winner or loser, shark or sheep, introvert or extrovert, Christian, Muslim, atheist? How smart are you? How rational? How emotional? Do people like you? Are you getting ahead, or falling behind?
How do you know? Are you keeping an eye on the others in your category, comparing to see how you measure up to your peers? Is it more important for a man to be tall, or to have good hair?
This is, of course, the path of insanity, and not the good kind of insanity.
What will you do if you're too tough to be a good woman, too sensitive to be a good man, too selfish to be a good husband, too lazy to be a good employee, too shy to be a good friend, too caring to be rational, too fat to be pretty, too effeminate to be straight, too introverted to be a good leader, too smart to be kind, too young to be taken seriously, too old to make a difference, or too far behind to even get in the race?
These are all false standards and false dichotomies, but they are so common and so ingrained that we sometimes believe in them without even realizing it. And this leads to a mountain of insecurities, because nobody measures up to these crazy standards (and nobody should). But even if we don't believe in these things, it still matters what other people think, right? What will the neighbors think? Or how about our co-workers, or the people at church? And so everyone works to hide their insecurities, and they look around at their peers for comparison, and maybe they feel bad because everyone else seems to have it easy, to have it all figured out. The truth is, nobody can see the truth anymore. They are all working to hide the truth, because the truth is that they are afraid of who or what they really are. So they all put on a show, and they pretend to be a good whatever. Or maybe they rebel, and make a point of being a bad whatever, but then they are still under the control of that false standard, and they are still not being themselves.
That is all so exhausting.
I am nothing. It's simple. If I were smart, I might be afraid of looking stupid. If I were successful, I might be afraid of failure. If I were a man, I might be afraid of being weak. If I were a Christian, I might be afraid of losing faith. If I were an atheist, I might be afraid of believing. If I were rational, I might be afraid of my emotions. If I were introverted, I might be afraid of meeting new people. If I were respectable, I might be afraid of looking foolish. If I were an expert, I might be afraid of being wrong.
But I am nothing, and so I am finally free to be myself.
This isn't license to stagnate. Change is inevitable. Change is part of who we are, but if we aren't changing for the better, then we are just slowly decaying.
By returning to zero expectations, by accepting that I am nothing, it is easier to see the truth. Fear, jealousy, insecurity, unfairness, embarrassment -- these feelings cloud our ability to see what is. The truth is often threatening, and once our defenses are up, it's difficult to be completely honest with anyone, even ourselves. But when I am nothing, when I have no image or identity or ego to protect, I can begin to see and accept things as they really are. That is the beginning of positive change, because we can not change what we do not accept and do not understand. But with understanding, we can finally see the difference between fixing problems, and hiding them, the difference between genuine improvement, and faking it. We discover that many of our weaknesses are actually strengths once we learn how to use them, and that our greatest gifts are often buried beneath our greatest insecurities.
Letting go of your identity can be difficult and takes time, possibly forever, but as with any change, moving in the right direction is all that really matters (which is why you shouldn't compare yourself with others -- you didn't start in the same place or with the same challenges). Fortunately, we have a variety of emotions that can help us: pride, anger, fear, jealousy, insecurity, unfairness, embarrassment, bitterness, etc. These are sometimes portrayed as bad emotions, but there's no such thing as a bad emotion, just bad responses to emotions. (For example, torturing children is a very harmful response to fears about your own sexuality) If we instead use these emotions as a cue to remember, "I am nothing", let go of our identity, and examine why we are feeling the emotion (typically because something has threatened our identity) then these emotions are actually beneficial. They point us towards the buried truth.
True self improvement requires becoming a better version of our selves, not a lesser version of someone else. But without self acceptance and understanding, how can we even know what that looks like or whether we're headed in the right direction? It would be like putting the final touches on the Mona Lisa while picturing some celebrity you saw on the cover of People magazine -- the result would be a mess. Until we let go of our mental images of who we are or who we should be, our vision remains clouded by expectation. But when we let go of everything, open ourselves to any truth, and see the world without fear or judgement, then we are finally able to begin the process of peeling off the shell of false identity that prevents our true self from growing and shining in to the world. And it starts with nothing.