A Significant Life (October 2005)Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:21
A Significant Life
Before the suicide bombers were even identified the question was being asked, ‘Why did they do it?’ Most of the answers from the experts and the people in the street came in only two versions, ‘They were evil’ or ‘They’d been brain washed.’ Such answers may relieve anger and frustration but they don’t explain why. To find the answer we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is the absolute top priority in my life?’
As we get older and find ourselves reviewing our life we can see clearly that what matters most is that our life should have significance, that our existence has been acknowledged by others and in some way has made a difference. To die and disappear, seemingly never to have existed, makes just the thought of death utterly unbearable. In old age we can articulate this clearly but when we were younger we may have striven for significance without understanding exactly why. As small children we did what we could to get the adults’ attention, and then, to achieve this even more effectively, we learned to be good in the way our parents and teachers defined ‘good’. If, as we got older, we felt that our life had no significance we became greatly distressed. Women who feel that they are seen only as wife, mother, daughter, employee, and never as themselves can easily become depressed. Middle-aged men who feel that they have played all the cards in their hand, achieved nothing, and now face a dreary trudge though the rest of their life, are likely to abandon their partner for someone much younger, or take to drink or drugs, or become depressed, or kill themselves.
We all differ in how we define ‘significance’. Some people feel that they will be significant only if they become the greatest sportsperson, or the most famous artist, or the richest or the most powerful person in the world. Others ask only that they will always enjoy the love and attention of their family and friends. We will do the most outrageous, stupid things to gain and keep the significance we strive for. We will cheat, lie, steal, betray, become a slave to work or to our appearance, or undertake foolhardy adventures in order to feel significant. Even those who ask only for love and attention will devote themselves totally to the needs and wishes of family and friends while ignoring their own.
But all our efforts can easily come to naught because no one is taking any notice of us. Ian Cobain, writing in the Guardian, said of Hasib Hussain, who blew up the Number 30 bus, ‘When he moved to Matthew Murray high school it was apparent that he was never going to stand out as a scholar or a sportsman.’ All four bombers were described by their family and friends as good young men. However, goodness alone will not ensure significance, and the trouble with being good is that you’re never good enough. How can you become the ‘goodest’ person in the world? Every religion tells us how to be good, but each religion stretches across a spectrum from a fundamentalist interpretation of the religious doctrine as absolute truth with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ unambiguously defined, through a middling, less absolute but still conventional set of beliefs and practices, to a mystical interpretation which is unspecific in the extreme. All fundamentalist interpretations, whether Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Hindu, claim to show how a person can become the ‘goodest’ of all. Follow the fundamentalist religion’s teaching in every respect and punish those who do not, then your life will have the greatest significance of all. The British bombers may not be heroes in their home towns but they will attain the glory of martyr heroes on internet sites across the Muslim world.
Many adolescents who have failed in their efforts to be good and thus get loving attention from adults give up trying to be good and seek significance by trying to make sure that other people are aware of their existence and are afraid of them. Donal MacIntyre, writing in the Guardian, told how he had interviewed Ryan and Wayne, aged 19 and 16 respectively, who work as drug dealers. Older members of the gangland fraternity and the police each described these young men as dangerous. MacIntyre asked them both, ‘What do you want to be?’ Ryan said, ‘I just want plenty of dough, happy life.’ Wayne said, ‘I want to be remembered, me. I want someone to say, “Ah, remember him? Hard little bastard, that cunt.”’
The four bombers and Ryan and Wayne represent the two extremes of efforts to gain the greatest significance but there are many people in between these two extremes who try to feel that their life has significance by claiming that they are significant while other people are not. This way of thinking forms the basis of racism, religious hatred, nationalism, and snobbery in all its forms. It is the basis of the hierarchies that we form where those at the top lead lives which are seen to be far more significant than the lives of those lower down the hierarchy.
Fighting terrorism and fighting crime are wars that can never be won while we continue to trample over one another in the effort to make our own life significant while ignoring other people’s need to feel significant. Thus the American and British forces in Iraq count the numbers of their dead and mourn them but they don’t bother to count how many Iraqis are killed, not even the number of children. In Britain we exclude children from all hope of education because we don’t approve of the way they behave, and we don’t try to give them the attention which might teach them to seek significance in more socially acceptable ways. Many teachers do try to do this but they aren’t given the resources needed for such work. We grade children according to their scholastic ability and thus create a hierarchy where those at the top – teachers, parents and politicians – despise the children at the bottom. We pay great attention to ‘celebrities’ with very limited talents and ignore or, in the aftermath of a disaster, sentimentalise the people who make our daily lives comfortable and secure. We laud the successful entrepreneur and ignore or patronise the woman who cares for children or cleans up our mess. We sentimentalise or demonise children and ignore or patronise the old. In short, we deny to others what we want others to give to us. We forget that we all have significance simply because we exist.
SAGA Magazine, October 2005