I am intrigued by the significance of significance. Many of us seem to be engaged in an all consuming, never-ending search for satisfaction in this area. We want to believe that we matter; we need to believe it.
Personally it surprises me how much of my inner life has to do with the pursuit of feeling worthwhile and valuable. It’s as though somewhere along the line my will made a secret pact with my emotions to work together to manipulate and manoeuvre every thing I do to basically be about serving that end.
I watched The Truman Show when I was a teenager and was convinced for a while that it was true of my life. I stared into a marble once at home saying ‘hello!’ to the people behind the camera. It didn’t seem much of a leap for me to believe that I was the centre of the world’s attention, that the world basically exists to watch me and make me a star. Urgh I cringe even to write those words, but if I’m honest I can still see those same sentiments lurking.
I blame my parents. No wait, I blame their parents; I mean if they hadn’t unleashed on all these baby boomers a newfound sense of ‘life is short, so go remake it in your image’ then I wouldn’t be so downright self obsessed and consumed by ideas of personal grandeur.
Here’s my theory, and actually I blame Hitler – that’s how to really win an argument: My grandparents’ generation, traumatised by the brutality of the second World War, commodified sex by inventing the contraceptive pill and released on their children an attitude of Total Consumerism in a way never before seen. Nothing was going to stop them from grabbing life and running with it. Their experience could be remade in their image.
The values unleashed (literally removed from a leash) by my grandparents are only now starting to find their fruition in my generation. And what does all of this amount to, our obsession for experience and consumption? Significance, a life-consuming craving for it.
That’s my theory, except that it’s flawed.
I can’t blame Hitler for my approval addiction. This goes way beyond him. Presently we’re getting used to a slightly more unbridled (unhinged?) version of something that’s always been there. A desire for legacy and significance is what drove Achilles to fight in a battle he knew he’d die in after all.
Perhaps there’s some evolutionary hardwiring at work; yes that’s how we explain everything now isn’t it – evolution is our grand guiding philosophy. It’s my DNA, my selfish genes drive me to it – ironically even my jeans are selfish since I don’t know how ethically they’ve been made. What I mistake as a search for significance is really an inner drive to procreate, continue my line and enhance the wellbeing of my tribe. The trouble is I’ve produced three children, have a good reputation in my community, have the respect of my wife and friends and am materially and physically well-off. I am ludicrously rich by globals standards and have very little real need in my life. And yet it still isn’t enough. My mind still ‘relaxes’ by comparing my status with that of my peers, my mind is forever trying to convince me (or have me believe) that the grass is much greener in some other field, some other town, some other job, some other choice or cause and effect outcome. I must be the centre of the universe, I must be significant. I am forever restless until I arrive at being eternally recognised as significant.
I am surprised by how moveable the goalposts of significance are in my life. I had an idea when I was a teenager of what a significant life involved, it became the quest of my subconsciousness to attain it. Back then it was some talent I simply had to master in order to matter, and then (when I realised my own mediocrity) it was a job I simply had to have. After that it became about having a reputation, that people spoke well of me. Then (when I realised how dissatisfying that is – because who’s ever around to hear people say nice things about you? I mean there’s nothing fulfilling in not overhearing a conversation) it then became about something else… All of it, always searching for significance and never quite reaching it.
You know that feeling of holding a plastic ball under water? It’s like that. The ball is fighting to find its proper balance, to rest on the surface of the water. Life is like that, always fighting to find rest in the form of significance and purpose and peace with the world whilst being in the world.
I’ve found one particular ancient writer’s words make sense of this best:
You have formed us for yourselves and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
And that is the real quest going on.
by Jez Field