Embracing Obscurity

In a time when visibility equals importance, how do we recognize the value of our ordinary lives? 

First published for In Touch Magazine in 2017

Ten years ago, I was a fresh-faced college student with soaring ambitions for the future. I pictured myself at the age I am now, nearly 30, as an accomplished scholar of modern Chinese society, PhD in anthropology under my belt, mind studded with the ideas of all the major social theorists – Marx, Durkheim, Saussure, etc. And, of course, I would be spiritually mature, having undergone many trials and able to influence many by my example.

In other words, I would be living Life with a capital “L,” the Life that makes a mark on the world, the moving and shaking Life, in which I write groundbreaking articles and books, make speeches to people in suits, bring hundreds of people to Christ, and go to sleep each night knowing I accomplished something.

Instead, I am living life with a lowercase “l.” I wake up to my two-year-old son yelling for me or bursting into the room, peel myself off the bed, and decide if we’re going to eat cereal for breakfast yet again. I try to squeeze in some writing and reading (the important stuff) in between reading children’s books and going to the park and socializing with other moms. I shop for groceries. I make dinner. I hang out with my family in the evening and make stupid jokes. Bedtime comes way too early. I sleep and wake up and do it again the next day. My life is obscure, quotidian, and – some would say – not all that important.

Yet, as I confront the disparity between my life as it is and the Life I thought I would be living, I am realizing I have quite possibly been very wrong about what constitutes meaningful, impactful life. Like many in our society, and even in the church, I have equated impact with status and visibility. If people see you as knowledgeable, successful, connected, relevant, and somehow superior to them, then they will listen to you, the thinking goes. The more important and recognized you are, the more you will be able to influence people and win them over to your ways.

So we all strive to get in the spotlight, to be noticed, and to garner as many likes and shares on social media as possible. As an aspiring author, I worry about how many people are following me on the internet, how far-reaching my platform is, and if I can speak at churches and conferences to increase my visibility. Obscurity – not being seen or heard – is, in this industry and many others, the worst kind of failure.

Yet, I wonder if we have overlooked the benefits of being a nobody. My husband and I have found a place in a Spanish-speaking church, where many live on the margins of society struggling to pay bills and worrying about immigration problems. We are privileged recipients of their stories, ordinary and extraordinary, from growing up in poverty in Peru to crossing the Southwestern U.S. desert on foot. But we only heard them through being fellow nobodies, without an agenda and with enough time to spare to talk about anything and everything over countless dinners run on Latino time (that is, starting one hour late and ending four hours later).

Had we entered the church as “important people,” people whose opinions are highly respected, would our friends have dared to share their ordinary burdens with us? Most likely they would have done what I do around people that impress me – clam up, fumble for clever things to say, and try not to take up too much of their time because they probably have better things to do than listen to silly old me.

Is there a better model for Christian leadership that doesn’t require striving for status and visibility, which in the process pushes away the uneducated, poor, and marginalized, the very people Jesus sought out and calls us to love especially? Might the many “nobodies,” the people going about their mundane, lowercase “l” lives, have a crucial role in bringing about God’s kingdom? 

Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, describes Christian leaders as fellow pilgrims who are intimately familiar with the confusion, loneliness, and pain that underscores our shared humanity. To lead, according to Nouwen, doesn’t mean we have to be set apart, imparting wisdom from on high. It simply means we have to be willing to enter into our own depths, as Jesus did when he entered the grave and came out the other side, and “put our own faith and doubt, our own hope and despair, our own light and darkness at the disposal of others who want to find their way through their confusion and touch the solid core of life.” I can think of no better way to minister to all the nobodies in the world than to embrace my own unimportance and obscurity, being a nobody myself.

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