*A very wise, older friend had some interesting things to say to me recently on this subject. I had emailed him that I was experiencing similar thoughts to the OP “What does it all mean?” or more in my case “My lot in life kinda sucks!”.
Anyway, here’s the relevant portion of his long reply. I urge anyone to read it, I think its very moving.*
You like movies? Watch “The Last Emperor.” If you Netflix, it’s on the “Instant Viewing” list. I just watched it again (I saw it when it first came out) and it is about Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. Very good movie about a man whose life didn’t turn out the way he thought it would. Don’t know if it is historically accurate, but in this portrayal there is a certain grace in Pu Yi’s final acceptance of his lot in life.
Will you be working on Monday the 22nd? Maybe we can meet for lunch. I’m coming up to Cincy to visit my brother James’ grave site. He is buried over at Spring Grove. He would have been 56 this month. His life was quite sad–he was retarded but not so much that he wasn’t aware of it. He never had a chance by the standards of our society. And then one day some years ago–a few weeks before the guy from the Vikings died from heat stroke–he fell over on a sidewalk in Norwood. Also heat stroke.
I carry some curious baggage about Jim. My parents had more or less prepped me on the fact that it would be my responsibility to take care of him as he and I got older, after the parents were gone. And that was my mindset, except there were times when I resented what I childishly felt was an imposition. Dutiful but also partly resentful. Now that he is gone, I sometimes beat myself up about that. I’ll ask myself, “Did I love him enough? Did I show him in ways he knew and understood?”
So I occasionally take an opportunity to stop by and visit him; it’s my small way of announcing to the world that his life did have meaning and is not yet forgotten. And, of course, it soothes my pangs of conscience. Anyhow, if you want to try to meet up, give me an addy and a rough time that work work for you. I’ll be going over to Goshen on the east side for the evening.
I wouldn’t characterize my visits to Jim as acts of defiance nor as acts of deference with respect to the universe-at-large. Even thought there is a little of both in my motives. This may sound strange, Steve, but I think of it as a step on the path of acceptance. Even though I remember Jim now, when I’m gone, he’ll be lost to History. As will you and I and almost every one we know, be it 50 or 100 or 1000 years from now. It’s tempting to ask onself, “What’s the point?”
But here’s the thing. History is not only writ large. The “bit players” of human history actually do change the universe. Literally. There are billions of folks throwing rocks of cause-and-effect into the universal pond and where the concentric cirles redound (not to mention how they interact with each other) is often hard to predict. Nevertheless, each person is absolutely unique and has a very specific relationship to the rest of the world. Once one is gone, that specific relationship cannot be replaced or replicated.
So what we do does matter. There is a point. And though in most cases our lives will not become part of recorded history to be passed into remembrance (and honor and glory), they will have accomplished something more vital: for better or worse, each life changes the composition of the world. It’s one of the reasons why Leibniz called this “the best of all possible worlds.”
Choose wisely and perhaps as important, choose with moderation. Think about where you fit into the scheme of things and accept the truth that even if our lives seem small, they are not. Talk about equality! You are just as important as George Washington–it just may not seem like it on the surface. We all have our trials and tribulations. And it all boils down to–"there’s one of you and there’s one of not-you, and we call the “not-you” the rest of the universe.
Tough concept I’ll try to illustrate with some thoughts about the workplace. I’m an elitist and I’m also a proletarian. Nothing wrong about getting some dirt under the fingernails. Nothing wrong with being ambitious, either. Lots of nitty-gritty ways to earn consumption tickets are more honorable than the kinds of lifestyles we see splashed throughout the media. Who’s more useful to society, you or I with our blue-collarish work, or some banker who makes his daily bread fucking over many people and society-at-large? Or some corporate insurance asswipe who denies some kid the cancer treatment he needs on the basis of an actuarial table?
We sell our labor, our sweat and our know-how, not our souls. Our souls require consideration far broader than that which is found in a workplace. Would that more people understood that because if they did, perhaps there would be a lot less evil around us, not only in the workplace but in the totality of life, too.
So, if you get down on yourself amidst the mindless banality and bullshit found in all workplaces, or if someone “more socially respectful” than you looks down on you as though you were a nothing, a peon, remind yourself like this: “It’s a good thing I don’t locate my sense of identity merely in the way I sell my labor. I’m more than that.”
Work is compromise by it’s very nature and in todays environment, we ought to be careful to protect that which is ours. I haven’t said much on the board re economics in recent months for two reasons. First, it gives other folks room to develop their owm hypotheses, and second, round 2 of the shitstorm will be hitting this year (it’s already started) and I don’t want to scare people. Unless there are some very radical policy shifts then America is headed down a long slow decline towards a social climate similar (but worse, imo) than that which hit England in the 70s and 80s. Characterized by very long term unemployment for some folks, among other things. So even if work seems like a slog now, what you do is honorable work and it helps protect you and yours. That’s no small thing.
In any case, Steve, all you can do as you walk through life is strive to be the “best of all possible Steves.” The striving part matters as a verb, and even if our actions don’t always measure up as high as we would like (I know that’s very true in my case) they are generally honorable in a silent, but meaningful way. Sometimes we lose sight of that in the rush of day-to-day living.