I recently heard David Brooks being interviewed on the radio, he wrote a book and is busy making the promotional rounds. I was interested in the book generally but I was really interested in something he said that he found interesting and which had informed some of what he was writing about: fifty years ago when people in the 18-24 year old demographic were asked. “do you think you are very important?” less than twenty percent said yes. Just a year or so ago when the same age group was asked the same question over eighty percent said yes. I guess all that work we have been doing on self-esteem paid off. Maybe.
I’m wondering in a sort of rhetorical way about the difference between feeling good and believing you are “very important” in more than a sort of abstract, yes we are all children of God and important kind of way. For instance, I believe I am important in a spiritual sense – I have a soul, I am connected to the universal fabric of being and energy, I matter and I am a part of connected matter. That is important and it is important for me to honor this in myself and in all of the people I encounter (sometimes I am not great at either part). But I’m not sure that makes me “very important” in the big picture of daily living and the survival of the earth. I never have to get to the meeting with such urgency that someone might die if I’m not there. This is not true for a surgeon in emergency situations. I don’t negotiate peace treaties for the Middle East, or produce life saving medications, or even produce the food we all need to eat to survive. The work I do is meaningful to me, the people I live with are closely connected to me and appreciate the things I do for and with them, I care for others and am cared for, but that doesn’t mean the same thing as “very important.”
“Very important” has been confused with “I matter” and the two things just simply are not the same. Also “very important” in one situation might not mean “very important” all the time. Our surgeon for instance might be very important with respect to what they are doing at work, but when they are not at work and are on the way to the basketball game they don’t have more of a right to cut you off on the freeway than anyone else does. It’s not more important that they get to that game on time than you do; it is more important that they get to the hospital than you get to the basketball game. Importance is situational, not inherent.
But we all feel “very important” all of the time and as a result we all act like a bunch of giant jerks to each other because we are so important that everyone else just has to get out of our way. Why for instance do you feel like it is more appropriate for me to move my car out of your way so you can back up and re-park than to just wait until the person next to you finishes pulling out so I can park and get out of your way naturally. I did not choose to try and jam my large car in a tiny spot that anyone could see wasn’t going to work, you did that. This person of which I speak was apparently so important that it was imperative for two other people to be inconvenienced so they could get to the deli counter at safeway thirty seconds faster to order their fried chicken. Or why for instance is it more important for you to make your flight such that you must demand I relinquish my place in line and allow you to go first. If you were on your way to a world changing negotiation, major surgery only you could do, or a business deal that would save the pandas probably you would have an entourage and a private plane. Not clearly have overslept and now expect everyone else to accommodate your poor planning because you are just so damn important. I was so important in the latter case that I politely said, “no” to which I was treated to the retort, “bitch.” Oh well. Turns out we both made our flights.
I don’t think I am particularly important and that doesn’t bother me. I still feel like I am pretty smart, that I contribute positively in the work I do, that I am worthy of respect and kindness and love. Mostly we all are. And I think the vast majority of us are just not that important most of the time and that we would all be a lot more pleasant, polite and happier if we accepted that.