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You Have To Be Your Own Fan

If your self-confidence never wavers, if you are thoroughly convinced of your own worthiness – whatever that means to you – than this essay is probably not for you.

Most Americans are very familiar with self-doubt in all of its forms. We continually examine the circumstances of our lives, and the opinions of those we come in contact with, for the answers to questions like, Are we worthy of respect, esteem, love? Are we competent, intelligent, reliable, useful? Are we insightful, deep, spiritual? Are we attractive, interesting, entertaining? Are we a good friend, a good spouse, a good lover, a good student, a good employee? Are we kind, generous, strong? Are we good at what we do?

Whatever evaluation we come up with, good or bad, can’t last. Any judgement about where we fall on any particular dimension is relative, not absolute. There is always someone else more or less _______. For every person who thinks we are wonderful, there is someone else who thinks the opposite, or can’t be bothered to think about us at all. Perhaps right now we have a positive evaluation of ourselves with respect to a particular characteristic, but time passes and circumstances change and we lose one of the supports for our self-esteem. 

When we become familiar with how tenuous and fleeting any evaluations of self are, we are introduced to a deep humility. This humility is a good thing when it helps us hold our circumstances with open hands, grateful for the positive and less worried about the negative because we know everything changes. Often, however, we let humility creep over into humiliation as we lose confidence in the positive and dwell on our mistakes and limitations.

In the end we have to be our own fan. No matter how flawed, ordinary, limited or even terrible we might be, we have to embrace our own life and take our place in the world. One of our Buddhist precepts states, “Do not be mean with dharma or wealth – share understanding, give freely of self.” The self of which we are supposed to give freely is none other than this flawed, ordinary, limited, relative self. We have to offer our point of view, share the unique contribution we have to give, let people see our art and hear our voice, wholeheartedly inhabit the roles we find ourselves in, and stand in line for our piece of the pie. We can do all of this with humility and with consideration for others, but at the same time in a confident, unashamed manner.

Offering ourselves in a confident, unashamed manner is relatively easy when other people are giving us their kudos. Everyone has felt themselves buoyed by the affection and support of a parent, friend, or significant other. It is especially encouraging when a group of people have concluded together that we are competent and admirable – we can feel on top of the world. Unfortunately, depending only on support from others leaves us on insecure footing when opinions change or someone we rely on can’t be there for us in the way we need them to be.

If we can be our own fan we have an almost unassailable strength, but most of us are waiting to become our own fan until we meet certain internal criteria. Those internal criteria are generally dependent on external feedback or circumstances, so we alternate between times of being our own fan (if we are lucky) and being our own worst enemy.

We have to learn to be our own fan without conditions. However flawed and limited we are (as if that can be objectively determined), that’s where we are. That is where we have to pick up our life and begin. No use wailing about what we are not. And wherever we begin, we must conduct ourselves with the same dignity and respect we aspire to give others. It’s no one else’s job to believe in us. They have enough work to do. And if no one believes in us, we aren’t going to get far, so we have to believe in ourselves.

It actually takes great humility to be your own fan. Not one of us is above criticism, whereas every one of us can be seen, according to some point of view, as rather silly and pathetic. Knowing this is so, being your own fan means letting go of your ideals and embracing who you really are.

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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