I think it would be true to say that none of us wants to die a nobody. We want those around our grave to remember the contribution we made whilst we played in this realm.
We want to make a difference.
We want to stand out.
We want to be seen as important.
We want significance.
To be blunt, I believe that striving for significance is a futile ego-stoking exercise. Isn’t this what the ego wants … for others to tell us how amazing we are?
Our egos want our names on libraries and on streets. Our egos want the medals, the mentions and the citations. We want the chemical high that comes from being recognised and praised. But, it’s hardly likely that we’ll be remembered for long, no matter how planet-changing our contribution was.
When our dust is mixed with those of the dinosaurs and everything else that came before that and the sun fries this planet in say, another 5-billion years or so, who’ll care about our so-called significance?
Last year my sister and I were trying to remember when my mother died. I got the day and month right and she was a day off. Neither of us could remember the year (Alicea it’s 23 August 2009 if you’re interested). How’s this possible? How can I not remember the death of a woman who protected me for 46 years and loved me until her dying breath? She was my rock, my friend, my confidant and my mother.
Maybe I’m just a bad son. Or maybe significance is an illusion.
Indulge me and take this test to see how well you know the people whose past deeds impact on our lives today.
(1) Who was Beyers Naudé?
(2) When did Nelson Mandela die?
(3) When was Martin Luther King assassinated?
(4) Which Greek king was credited with saving the democracy that you and I so cherish?
(5) Who invented television?
(6) Who invented the stove?
(7) Who invented the fridge?
(8) When was the bible compiled and by whom?
(9) Who founded the first institution of higher learning (university) in the western world?
(10) Who invented the Internet?
I’m sure you get it. These people played a significant role in the way you and I live our lives today, yet I had to go to Google to find the correct answers. I’ve made it easy for you – the answers are at the end of this article.
If you and I can’t even remember facts about our nearest and dearest and the thousands who impacted us, what chance have we got of being remembered? What chance have we got of actually being significant. I say “zero” because significance really is a myth.
Never mind that it’s futile to strive for significance, but it’s also a dangerous exercise when it comes to our mental health. Striving to be significant makes us weak and powerless. If we base our significance on being recognised by others then surely they have the power to bestow or withhold that significance from us? We have then yielded our power to another.
And, when we don’t get what we want – in this case significance – we act up and act out. We become spiteful, distrustful, distasteful, angry, violent, inelegant and bitter. We play the victim because we are defined by what others think of us.
I don’t think this is a cool way to live at all, do you?
So, what’s the answer? I would never be so arrogant as to presume I know the answer. However, I’ve been working through a lot of spiritual texts recently and have been blessed to have mentors in this arena. So, for me the mists of ignorance are (very) slowly parting to reveal a semblance of an answer.
It’s becoming clearer to me that every one of us is heading for a cataclysmic event. No matter how rich or poor we are, no matter our culture, creed or race, this event is so final that it makes me shiver with dread. I’m hoping that the work I’m doing on myself now will let me face it with submission and good grace. This event makes of us all brothers and sisters. It’s the great equaliser. This event is our death.
So, if death is the final destination, then the trick is to get there as eloquently and elegantly as possible. For me at least, striving for significance is an inelegant solution. My answer is simply, love. Love the moment you’ve been given right now to do something masterful.
Not for the sake of significance but just because it makes your heart sing. Love the person you’re with right now (be it your significant other, your boss, an employee, a beggar or child).
Don’t do it because you want something from that person but because you want to set them up to succeed. Do your work for the work’s sake … not for gain or favour.
Do the work because you’re an artist creating something magnificent. Work on yourself because that’s where your real battles are. They’re certainly not in the world. Doing inner work gives you control and makes you powerful.
And, the more you do the work, the more you’ll realise that you are insignificant in the grand scale of this creation. And, you’ll be ok with that because you’ll be so awe-struck and grateful that you get to play in this magnificence for a little while longer.
And, when you get called home you’ll submit to it with grace because you’ll know that you played your part with elegance and eloquence. And, that’ll enough for you.
- Teologan and anti-apartheid activist
- December 5, 2013
- April 4, 1968
- King Leonidas
- Vladimir Kosma Zworykin
- Benjamin Franklin
- Oliver Evans
- AD 325 by The Council of Nicaea led by Constantine
- Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn