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Essay of the Month: Significance/Insignificance

from the Issa project, 8" X 8" 2008, Mark W. McGinnis

What is significant? What is not significant? As with beauty this seems to be a subjective area of inquiry, but subjective or not, it certainly deserves consideration as what we perceive as important in our lives shapes how we live our lives.

Certainly the universe(s?) is significant. It is what is and all that is. Human beings have long thought of themselves as significant and many have thought of themselves as of the utmost significance. While the concept of the earth as the center of the universe has been gone for some centuries, the concept of the individual human being as the center of the universe is still very much alive. To some extent this is understandable. We know the universeonly though ourselves – it is the only way we can know it.

Therefore to place ourselves at the center and to put primary importance on ourselves is a natural thing to do. But natural though it may be, with what limited understanding as we now have of what the universe is, we can now see that we are less than an atom in the overall picture of the cosmos. This seeming extreme insignificance can lead to distress in many. How could something as significant to us as ourselves be so apparently meaningless in the big picture? While so troubling at first, this same understanding can be equally liberating. What we have been placing such supreme importance in can now be placed in proper perspective. Our every thought and action is not of great consequence. Our lives need not cause us great worry and stress as the truth is that we are not that significant. That may seem a rather harsh sentiment, but I feel it is actually a kind one. If we can truly understand the meaning of our place in the universe we can be at peace with it. We can let life flow rather trying to shape it into something that we feel fits our great importance. We can enjoy life rather than attempting to manipulate it.

An argument that can follow this reasoning is that if we are so insignificant, then what does anything matter? Why should we strive, care, create, love, and so on? Living with a realistic sense of humility does not diminish need to live a good and fulfilling life. To enjoy life ourselves and to attempt to make life more enjoyable and sustainable for all is a completely rational way to exist. Just because we and our planet is tiny piece in the cosmos does not mean we are inconsequential. Because we only have a very brief time, in cosmic terms, does not mean that that time should not be used well.

While we may be insignificant in size and life-span, we are made of the very same stuff as the rest of the universe. What we are has been countless other aspects of the universe and will be countless more. We are part of the unfolding of the universe – we are immortal and ever becoming. What we do is not inconsequential in the cosmic sense either. It has been said that a butterfly flapping its wings in San Francisco can impact the weather patterns in China. While this seems absurd, in the reality of how matter interacts it is a statement of fact. This comes back to the how little we can sense of what is truly happening in our world and universe. Can the way I lead my life impact the Andromeda galaxy? I don’t know, but I do know enough to say that it may be possible.

Who is more significant: a politician who finally brings universal health care to the United States, a poet who brings insight and beauty into this world, or a housewife who helps an elderly neighbor? The politician may have improved the health of tens of millions of people. The poet may have brought joy and understanding to thousands. The housewife improved the quality of life for her neighbor. For that neighbor the housewife was undoubtedly the most significant. That kind of significance is not subjective – it is real. There are endless ways of being significant in our lives the only criteria are that we reach beyond ourselves to others and to the universe.

image and text copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

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