I’m sick of not having
the courage to be an absolute nobody.
—(Franny and Zooey, JD Salinger)
Lari and I have been sending birthday letters to each other for six years straight and counting. After graduating from high school in 2006, we never heard from each other again until 2009, the year her mom passed away. The message I sent her to extend my condolences was small and helpless, puny in the face of immeasurable grief. I messaged her again on her birthday the year after, the year she turned 21, and that is when our tradition began.
Our friendship is made mostly of space and distance, knit together by an annual exchange of only our best-est words. Here’s the thing about Lari: she is one of the most brilliant people I know. She’s an artist and the things that are born from the stroke of her hands is always beautiful. Her art is rich and alive, pulsating with a passion that is far from tired. She makes the kind of art that will make you take notice. But here’s another thing about Lari: she is also one of the most humble people I know. She genuinely doesn’t care about acclaim or validation. She makes things, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Quite simply: love for love’s sake.
I don’t know how one could keep so under the radar while in possession of so much talent.
I was born into a family with big stories. My dad, an acclaimed musician and songwriter. My brother, a celebrated music producer. My grandfather, a war hero. My grandmother, the first Korean war bride in the Philippines. I grew up seeing their names in the newspaper and their faces on TV. There were movies inspired by their lives. There were photoshoots and magazine features. There were awards and award shows. There were concerts, where the lights were bright and shiny. This, I speculated as a young girl, is what it means to be known.
I spent so much of my life wanting to be known too, believing that success looked a lot like walking into the spotlight, to the sound of an audience’s wild applause. I am a shy girl and attention makes me nervous yet I could not divorce the idea from my system. As social media began to grow, so did the idea of networking and image curation. Suddenly everybody had a platform they could shout from, suddenly everybody had a fairly decent shot at being somebody, and I refused to be left behind.
What I wanted is what we all want at the core: I wanted to matter. I wanted to make a splash, to create a tidal wave of change in the world, and I wanted my name to be spelled out for everyone to see. Like my family, I wanted a story that was larger than life. Somewhere along the way, I bought into the idea of prestige. And it is interesting because a little while back I found out that that word is actually derived from the Latin praestigiae, which means “conjuror’s tricks”. How fascinating to find that these two things — prestige and illusion — are actually deeply connected.
I like Jesus for the same reason I like Lari: he never thought he was a big deal. Jesus showed up knowing his importance in the story of the world but he never felt driven to broadcast the fact. It wasn’t a lack of self-worth but rather, a beautiful display of self forgetfulness. For Jesus, people were the point. So he sat with them and made them feel like they mattered. This is what made him truly revolutionary. And when his popularity grew, when he found himself put on a pedestal, he took the time to withdraw to lonely places. (*Luke 5:16) He was not afraid of obscurity and he did not care about being liked. Jesus, too, acted on the simple principle of love for love’s sake.
I’m turning 27 in a few days and I’m bowing out of the prestige rat race. Perhaps what I’m finding now is that perspective matters. I used to be afraid of living out a small life. But I’m starting to think that maybe nothing is ever truly small. Everything — even just a birthday letter waiting in your Facebook inbox — matters. And if we’re going to follow the way that Jesus thinks, then we’re going to have to believe that everybody, every single person, matters too. The fear that comes with facing obscurity is a lie. I’ve hugged the illusion way too tightly and mistaken it for truth. I’ve chained myself to the idea that I am no one if the world doesn’t know my name. But then I remember Jesus, who wanted love more than recognition; who wanted it so bad that he lost everything for it; who wanted it so bad that he died for it. Then I see Lari, who works hard and makes beautiful art and on my birthday, sends a letter. In this dog-eat-dog world, where competition and ambition reign supreme, I’m starting to see that maybe the one thing that is truly larger than life is a small idea: humility.
The quiet worker who helps keep business afloat is no less than the powerful entrepreneur whose face shows up in billboards. The person who never gets known, never receives an award, never finds themselves getting the applause, is still incredibly valuable. The fight to be somebody is overrated — the world is run by a million important nobodies. I know this now and I am not afraid. After all, it was a nobody who hung on the cross, beaten and left for dead, and he had the biggest life I know.
In her last birthday letter to me, Lari wrote this: “To be unpressured by ridiculous constructs from the media or society in general. To love yourself for who you are and for what you are shaped like. For the latter to not even matter as long as you are in good health. To find love when it is the right time, even if what appears to be the right time is not exactly also the convenient time. Isa, please just go through life unhampered by what people expect you to act like.”
I do not know if Lari will eventually stand on the platform and spread her art out to the world. I hope she does. Talent like hers should not go unnoticed. But I know two things for sure. I know that on some days, my weary eyes search through her letters at odd hours to find hope. And I know that when I read her words, I want to go back to my younger self and say: “No, this is what it means to be known. And this, right here, is enough.”