Being Reminded that You are Disposable isn’t Fun but it’s Necessary
If there’s a consistent lesson being drummed into my head in my fifties it is this: In the Grand Scheme of Things, I’m no big deal.
Contrary to the stream of self-affirmation spewing forth upon the social media platforms that tout individual strength and personal worth, none of us is terribly essential to the ongoing deluge of humanity spawning every second. The idea that one day we all wake up and realize that we are not the Center of the Universe is a strong one.
Avoiding full existential crisis and nihilism that this recognition seems to indicate, let’s look at it with a bit of dispassion and a sense of rationality. We say BlackLivesMatter as a hopeful whistling in the dark rather than any sort of expression of reality. Reality is that, except in the tiniest of segments and the slimmest of margins, NoLivesReallyMatter. We throw up social media posts and pictures stating our own determination to be unique and special among seven billion people and, man, the odds are just not in our favor.
While we wake up every morning somehow convincing ourselves that each one of us is the protagonist of the biopic about us, almost no one on the planet gives a fuck about you and your feelings and opinions and daily aches and pains. Unless you happen to cross paths with someone’s pet cause or single voting issue, your opinion of the state of things means next to nothing. Status is fleeting, power is interchangeable, and, on a planet with so many people, the fact that your funeral will likely be attended by less than fifty people (and only six really knew you) indicates that your sense of self worth cannot be determined by a belief in your own importance.
As the number of people increase on Earth, the more recyclable we each become. It’s simple math. Disposal bags, lighters, toys, clothing. It’s only a natural evolution that we each become disposable in our own way. We have family but unless we have the sort of family who lives and breathes together — regular meals and work and of that sort of tribal existence — family becomes secondary to individual existence. Perhaps more than disposable but less than forever, family is the basis of our belief that we are each somehow essential. Friendships, communities, populations? The larger the grouping, the less important each of us becomes until we are merely cogs in social machines easily replaced when inconvenience rears its head.
You will not be invited to that celebration despite your years of service.
You will not be credited for your work once the corporation decides you are to be escorted out of he building.
You will not be the next Gandhi or King or Parks or Goldman.
You will be forgotten almost immediately once you are gone.
I grew up as a transient for most of my earliest days. My tiny family tended to move from place to place rather frequently. One result to my psyche this existence fomented was, out of necessity, a rapid distancing of myself from rooted relationships with both regions and people. Thus, my definition of friend tends to be more specific and uncompromising which is not a great way to see relationships but is nonetheless my burden. Everyone has their specific burden, however, and I can pretty much guarantee that few give a rat’s ass about mine, yeah?
The thing is George Bailey wasn’t the story. Sure, he’s played by venerable star of the day, Jimmy Stewart and the focus of the tale is from his perspective, but it never was about him. The wonderful life he saw was about the people he affected for the better not himself. A deeper look at the story tells us that all of those moments Clarence showed George as reasons to live were about other people succeeding due to his sacrifice of his own forward momentum. Without his sacrifice of his hearing in one ear, his brother wouldn’t become a hero. Without his decision to take over the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, the poorest people in town would not have homes. The message of the classic film is not that we should fight to stay alive so we can be alive but that we should fight so that we can sacrifice our own lives for the betterment of others.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one,” said Spock in another fictional parable.
This is a difficult challenge to make to those ensconced in the society of narcissism which we are currently navigating. Today we want credit, approval, validation more than almost anything else. In the fight for the supremacy of autonomy, compensation or recognition it seems that recognition is tantamount. On some level, we must recognize how disposable we all are but fight desperately against fading into the ocean of similar water droplets that comprise the many.
Yet there is a freedom in admitting to disposability. Once you see it clearly, how essentially small you are, it opens up the possibility of being effective in the small moments, the tasks that no one will ever see but make all the difference in individual lives. George Bailey wasn’t special. He was, on most faces of it, a real loser. That’s why he decided to end it all — he was a failure from the lens of post-modern success. Clarence didn’t change his mind, he shifted his perspective away from himself to those who surrounded him.
So what to do as a wholly disposable piece of a puzzle that will replace you in the blink of an eye?
Some become enraged and decide to inflict harm upon realizing how unimportant they are. They get guns and shoot strangers because if they aren’t the center and worthy of permanence, then no one else gets to feel that way either.
Some dedicate their lives to selfless pursuit in order to get the altruistic signaling that comes with martyrdom.
Most delude themselves into a comfortable blanket that shields them from the knowledge while others find the freedom to be unacknowledged, unappreciated and unrewarded for the tiny successes no obstacle for doing those things anyway.
I’d like to be that last guy. Maybe your vote doesn’t count. Vote anyway. Your heart will be broken. Love anyway. No one will appreciate your years of service. Serve anyway. Dive in and save your brother in the ice or take the crap job instead of follow your dream. Whatever.
As a nonfictional David Foster Wallace once said, “This is water.”