Many of your Redesign Your Mind efforts have as their goal increasing your belief that you and your efforts matter. That important existential goal a top priority!
It would seem self-evident that a person would decide to opt to matter and consider her efforts, if not dramatically important, at least not pointless. Why wouldn’t a person opt to matter and conceptualize her efforts as valuable?
Well, certainly, her upbringing might be one impediment. She might have grown up lectured about the extent to which she didn’t matter and punished for attempting to matter. Her culture, too, may have drilled into her the idea that she was merely one of many and that group norms should always come first: that religion should come first, that fitting in should come first, that not making waves should come first. Many life lessons may have taught her that it was wrong-headed, immoral, or pointless to opt to matter.
Still, the magnitude of her difficulty in opting to matter is not really explained even by these many negative life lessons. It turns out that the main obstacle she faces is her belief, shared by every modern person, that human life is “ultimately” meaningless. Any reasons that she tries to adduce for mattering are overwhelmed by the possibility, bordering on a certainty, that she and her fellow human beings are only excited matter put on earth for no reason except that the universe could do it. All life, hers included, is mere pointless happenstance, not worth crying about or taking seriously.
This bitter pill is a new view, barely two hundred years old. Before that, life seemed special. For thousands of years the idea of life as categorically different from non-life, unique and important in the cosmos, was a core tenet of philosophy. This view felt compelling until biologists found, beginning with Wohler and the synthesis of urea in 1828, that organic compounds could be created from inorganic materials. We can date our present difficulties in making and maintaining meaning from that single event, the synthesis of urea.
From that day forward a new philosophy was needed, since life lost much of its mystery, sanctity, importance, and glamour. Once you join the scientific materialists, as all of us have done to a lesser or a greater extent, and believe that you can make human beings simply by striking dead atoms with powerful but meaningless forces, life turns meaningless. This is the basic problem with which we’ve been wrestling for two hundred years. The suspicion that we do not matter haunts and plagues those of us who are existential, even including believers.
We manage to bear up despite the suspicion that we are merely excited matter. We find ways to bear up every day. But on many days, we discover that we can’t bear up; on those days, we despair about our cosmic unimportance and grow furious with the facts of existence. We feel saddened and defeated and lose our motivation to make meaning in any way. The very word “meaning” strikes our ears as a cosmic joke. Because of our fear that we are merely excited matter and the consequent grudge that we hold against the universe, we feel lost and alienated, like a refugee far from home in a universe that cares nothing for us.
What can help? The following: making the decision to matter and affirming that decision by, whenever you enter your mindroom, putting on your “I matter” sweater.
Visualize putting on a comfy sweater bearing the motto “I matter” or“My efforts matter” or some other phrase that communicates to you the idea that you must opt to matter, despite all your doubts about the universe. You put this imagined sweater on each time you enter your mindroom, perhaps right after flipping on the lights, flipping on your calmness switch, and using your safety valve to release a little pressure. Inside that room, you live in that sweater. With that sweater on, you remember to matter.
Every modern person is driven to throw up her hands and cry, “Why bother! Why try to wrestle this stupid novel into existence? I might as well eat chocolate, take a bubble bath, and to hell with the ideas of life purpose choosing and meaning making!” So, she eats chocolate and takes a bubble bath. But within minutes she is forcibly struck by the counter-thought that she is obliged to make meaning, so devoid of meaning does it feel to have thrown up her hands. A countervailing energy arises in her, something like hope and something like pride, an energy that readies her to do combat with her sincere belief that she is utterly unimportant. Wearing her mattering sweater is one way to defeat meaninglessness.
We must opt for life. We must opt to live the twenty years or the sixty years ahead of us. This may be all that we have, but it is exactly what we have. We force life to mean while we are alive and until death releases us from our responsibility to live authentically. We say, “While I am alive, I can love.” We say, “While I am alive, I can learn a few things.” We say, “While I am alive, I can help in some ways.” We say, “While I am alive, I can create.” We opt to matter because we can and because, unromantically but utterly sincerely, we must.