August 08, 2008
How do you know if you are significant? This question lures us the wrong way, it invites us to judge ourselves on some criteria of importance - do we escape the ignominy of insignificance, it seems to ask. But no-one is truly insignificant. The worst that can happen is that you are unaware how important you are to the people in your life, and this is a far greater tragedy than not achieving notoriety, especially since fame (as any celebrity will attest) is a double-edged sword.
We strive sometimes, quite vainly, to prove to people how significant we are. To validate our intellect, our skills, our looks, whatever narcissism we have foolishly allowed to matter to our happiness. And when we are seduced by such vainglorious pursuits, we will certainly become unhappy since despite the unwavering message of the advertising industry, happiness is something that can be found only within, and all that the world of things can provide are temporary rewards and distractions.
The Jesuit priest, Anthony de Mello, whose spiritual thoughts drew upon many different traditions, said in his final meditations:
Nothing could be more irrelevant than to contemplate your significance. Let future historians argue over what was significant, it means nothing in the here and now. What makes you important is that you are you, and to your friends, to your family, to everyone who loves and values you, nothing could be more significant.
That's all for now. I've queued up a Round Table post for this Wednesday coming, but I'm on holiday in Cornwall next week, and in Leipzig for Game Convention the week after, so I'll be back in a fortnight. Have fun!
Whilst not related, this post reminded me of that quote:
“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
Posted by: zeech | August 08, 2008 at 12:14 PM
"Nothing could be more irrelevant than to contemplate your significance... What makes you important is that you are you"
I see what you're getting at, but I'm not sure if this is true in the larger social sense. Even at the personal level. The notion of real significance can't be too easily dismissed, and argument that self-belief enables action is pretty strong.
Posted by: zenBen | August 08, 2008 at 09:48 PM
There are certain advantages to being a relativist. I'd never even think of asking "Am I significant?" I'd only think of asking "Am I significant to [insert person* or group]?" Much easier to answer, and avoids the irrelevant question.
zenBen: How would asking "Am I significant" in some universal way ever *increase* my self-belief? :-) Ref: Douglas Adams, total perspective vortex.
* Cats are people too...
Posted by: Peter Crowther | August 09, 2008 at 12:35 PM
"zenBen: How would asking "Am I significant" in some universal way ever *increase* my self-belief? :-)"
Ask 'why is life significant?'. A probable positive answer may be hard to find, but if we admit the improbable or metaphysical, then we can answer - life could be the mechanism by which universes reproduce - for just one out-there example.
Then ask 'why is human life significant?'. Well in reference to the above answer, obviously we are the first techologised species that we know about, so therefore maybe the only one, ever. It could be up to us to engineer new baby universes!
Then, 'why am I significant?'. Of course I may not be, but if I take that as a given, how do I know that everyone else won't do the same? If no one assumes that they are significant, what would ever get done?!
It's a stretch, but so is the fact that I am here at all.
Posted by: zenBen | August 09, 2008 at 04:20 PM
If no one assumes that they are significant, what would ever get done?!
To be honest, I've no idea. My immediate response is "erm... about the same as ever, surely?" because even considering the question as relevant is so far outside my experience that I'm struggling to understand its relevance.
I'm significant *to me*. It's what gets me out of bed in the morning (when the cat doesn't). I'm significant to my parents, my wife, my close blood family, possibly my cat, probably some of my friends. Those are all motivating. It's just "Am I significant?" with no "to" that I don't understand.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | August 11, 2008 at 04:51 PM
" It's just "Am I significant?" with no "to" that I don't understand."
I think that for many people, what one is significant 'to' comes in the pre-cognate part of the question. Like the implicit rules in a game, this part of the question is inextricably intertwined with one's assumptions about, well, everything. For to be significant at all, is to be significant 'to' something (obviously), and that forces the 'to' part to be inherently assumed. On can of course work beyond the assumptions using reason or imagination.
I've no idea how many people would assume that the 'to' is solely those people/cats that know the questioner exists.
The relevance of my 'what would ever get done' question then (bearing in mind the above), can be summed up by the old saw: 'no man is an island'. There's an onion-like mass of assumptions we each hold about the way society works that lets most of us derive (unconscious) significance from being part of it. I'm saying (in the earlier comment), as a thought experiment cast that net of assumptions wider, and maybe an imaginative person can conclude some real significance in a universal sense.
Or maybe not.
Posted by: zenBen | August 11, 2008 at 05:30 PM
Chris, I had to look up "vainglorious" to see if it was really a word.. Because at first I thought you made it up. :)
What is really the distinction between "vainglorious" and simply "vain"? Adding the "glorious" seems redundant!
Posted by: Anon | August 12, 2008 at 10:18 PM
The question should NEVER be "Am I significant?" The answer is ALWAYS obvious. There is no truth to the obvious answer, but it is still there.
The fact is that we are all significant to the evolution of the homo sapiens species. Without our philosophical and theological and scientific debates we would still be simple animals with no driving force other than our basic needs.
Even our ape reletives use tools, and communicate with a vocal language. The primary focus of their significane depends on their ability to find food, mates and dislodge rivals. After a few more million years they too will question their personal significance in this ever expanding universe.
My point is thus;
All that humans have done in our mutually sordid history has been building up to THIS MOMENT. Our significance is unprecidented in scale and value to the survival of ALL LIFE on EARTH.
Do not question it, accept it.
Posted by: Dane Petersen | August 13, 2008 at 03:36 AM
Dane, it is the philospher's job to question, and the skeptic's job to doubt. Maybe it brings significance to our lives simply to question whether we are significant? :)
Posted by: Anon | August 13, 2008 at 03:16 PM
dj i/o here... Typepad still keeps on screwing up my "Posted by" line..
Posted by: dj i/o | August 13, 2008 at 03:18 PM
A lovely post. :)
It instantly reminded me of a favourite song of mine: Birthday by The Cruxshadows, a song many people find the lyrics are depressing, yet I find it amazingly happy, for all the reasons given in your post.
In particular this part:
Then tell me what really matters
Is it the money and the fame
Or how many people might eventually know your name
But maybe you touch one life
And the world becomes a better place to be
Maybe you give their dreams another day
Another chance to be free
Oh yes and it is cheesy as heck. ;) You've gotta love the cheese!
Posted by: Rik | August 20, 2008 at 05:17 PM
"The notion of real significance can't be too easily dismissed, and argument that self-belief enables action is pretty strong."
Sure, but one can believe in oneself without any notion of significance. I get what you are gesturing at here, though, and I take your point.
"It's just 'Am I significant?' with no 'to' that I don't understand."
The background assumption here is "significant to the (hi)story of our society as it will be told"; but I imagine different people could take this differently.
By this token, George W. Bush is significant, but it is less clear that Paris Hilton makes the grade. :D
"There's an onion-like mass of assumptions we each hold about the way society works that lets most of us derive (unconscious) significance from being part of it."
Really liked this sentence. This is the sort of thing Wittgenstein refers to as "the Background", I believe.
Anon (possibly dj i/o):
"What is really the distinction between 'vainglorious' and simply 'vain'? Adding the "glorious" seems redundant!"
Well if you consult the dictionaries they will tend to agree with you. But there's a reason that I like to hold onto these lexicographical oddities, and that's to preserve some of the unique texture of the language.
In this specific instance, I consider that there is a definite drift for "vain" and "vanity" to mean "vanity of appearance". So I tend to use "vainglory" or "vainglorious" to talk about vanity in the field of actions and achievements - the politician who tries to get noticed by beating their drum on such-and-such a point is acting in a vainglorious fashion according to this reading.
All of which serves to emphasise that the language is always in flux, and we can - to some small degree - influence these currents with our own word choices. Or so I believe! :)
"The fact is that we are all significant to the evolution of the homo sapiens species."
I'm going to nitpick here and say: we are all significant to the evolution of species that descend from homo sapiens. One may argue that the evolution of homo sapiens was concluded long before any of us were around! ;)
" All that humans have done in our mutually sordid history has been building up to THIS MOMENT. Our significance is unprecidented in scale and value to the survival of ALL LIFE on EARTH."
I see the polemic you are building here, and I sympathise: do we cause an extinction event, or do we allow the life that is here to persist? But you misjudge slightly, as nothing that humans can do will destroy all life on Earth (yes, even nuclear winter). But the survival of 95-99% of the species does indeed depend upon how we rise to the environmental challenge of our time.
Personally, I believe we can pass this test.
Rik: nice lyrics. And who except the vegans doesn't like cheese. :D
Posted by: Chris | August 26, 2008 at 08:18 AM