The question of our time, or rather the question of all-time, is can I create meaning in my insignificance? Most of us wonder, since life doesn’t appear to present us with any sort of inherently objective purpose for our existences, whether we could be happy while knowing how little we matter. This existential dichotomy exists in knowing that we’re ordinary people who seek some semblance of extraordinariness in order to feel that our lives matter; and thus, to become happy.
What is meaning? Can one attain a sense of it without being important on a grand scale or the cosmic one, an even unlikelier alternative? Philosophers have grappled with these two questions for centuries, but, in my humble opinion, they’re more amenable to resolutions than their appearances let on. If we were to consider the child version of Woody Allen’s character, Alvy, in Annie Hall, we’d remember his emotional plight after learning of his cosmic insignificance (“The universe is expanding! …the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.), thereby recalling our own inability to have an influence on the cosmic level. For some, this recognition is freeing, while causing despair in others; but, I believe that it doesn’t have to be either. Although I feel sad in knowing that I’m a spec in the vast sea of infinity, I revel in the fact that my mistakes aren’t anywhere near as impactful as I initially perceive them to be, at the same time accepting their affects on the environment of I’m in. Cosmic insignificance, even though an inescapable feature of our transient lives, doesn’t have to define them. Knowing that, there are those individuals who aspire to achieve a grand level of significance, as an alternative to the cosmic type.
When we conceieve of grand signfiance, we think of the Barack Obamas and the Napoleons of the world, those individuals who’ve profoundly altered the course of history’s arc. Becoming a president, or a mover and world shaker, comprises the pinnacle of meaning, the aspect of life which we should all strive for, especially if we want to become happy. The major difficulty with grand significance is its accompanying loneliness and its illusion of permanence. To become great, and I mean truly great, one has to devote a vast portion of one’s time and efforts to become extraordinary, disavowing the company of others and potentially completely isolating themselves in the process. Although many individuals strive to achieve grand significance, very few actually get there. And, in examining the importance of grand importance, we’re presented with a question: how significant is it really? As statues of the great monarchs lie buried with the memories of their great endeavors, we’re left wondering how important it is to have been them, in light of their transient glory. Napoleon lived and died, and the memories of his life, outside of some constructed understanding stemming from textbooks and films, have passed with those who passed with them. Barack Obama significantly contributed to the recreation of a vast healthcare system, and an ostensible legacy, which is now being torn apart by the present administration. While significant over an eight year span, which encompassed a successful presidency, his importance has reached its inevitable end, and his legacy lies in ruin, akin to the memorials hidden deep within the sands of time.
So, all of this begs the question of meaning, whether one can attain it despite the unattainability of cosmic significance and the unlikelihood of achieving grand importance (and the inherent inability to sustain it if one were to possess it). When it pertains to meaning, I argue in the affirmative, that we can create meaning and make our lives important, even while knowing what we know. As an individualistic and capitalistic culture, we overly focus on legacies and success, forgetting the minor moments which comprise the two goals. Whether those moments become part of a bigger picture is irrelevant to their importance in the immediate present which we quickly lose sight of. Obama’s work on healthcare was significant in each moment he spent fighting for it, as his ideas became implanted in the minds of those who once perceived it as a select privilege to be earned, rather than an inherent right to be protected. Despite the present, systematic dismantlement of Barack’s legacy, his ideas will live on, in each individual who’ll continue to champion a robust Medicare system, which caters to all, regardless of their income. When we focus on purpose, we ought to narrow its scope, focusing instead on the smaller moments of our lives, the ones which infuse the deepest recesses of one’s soul with emotion, ergo with meaning.
During the moments in which you heard Obama speak, you likely knew how much he cared about you, even though he didn’t know you, and that in itself was significant; and, that is what’s replicated in our daily lives. As teachers, we create meaning when we show concern for the intellectual, emotional, and physical well-beings of our young students; as therapists, we create meaning when we help our clients explore and uncover the hidden sources of their self-destructive patterns, and help them feel that which they’ve never felt before: lovable; as statesmen, we create meaning through our policies and the progression of our collective well-being, which manifests itself through them; as friends, we create meaning when we cry for the sorrows of our loved ones and much the same when we fly to the moon as they share their triumphs with us; as parents, we create meaning in each moment of warmth and each lesson imparted; and, as lovers, we create meaning through the physical and emotional intimacy which catapults us into a world that transcends our decaying universe. The list seems inexhaustible, mirroring only the infinity which resides in the creation that is our vast sea of meaning, the tiny moments which make our lives worth living.
Someday, my self and your self, the bright, shimmering lights in our eyes, will dim and become extinguished; our universes, like the one which Alvy described, will fade to black. But, in the meantime, the most significant question we could, and should, ask ourselves is what makes a good life, one that’s worth living? My answer: With the impossibility of cosmic meaning, and the relative insignificance of grand significance, life presents us with an alternative that all of us can achieve, which is meaning in the present. My accomplishments, my legacy, like those of the great individuals of cultural lore will be swept away by an empty sea of nothingness; but, what will lift my spirit, and sustain my self, is my experience of having an immediate impact in the world, on those whom I deeply love, as small and insignificant as it may be. If this article doesn’t change your life but instead simply makes you smile, you can consider my life’s work as fulfilled, at least a significant portion in this very insignificant moment.