The Joy of Insignificance

Last time I wrote about walking the South West Coast Path. It never fails to move me and on a recent trip I was struck by my utter insignificance. My head may have been filled with ideas, emotions and memories that are important to me but they seemed so trivial when I watched the waves homing on the beach. Earth Day this week came with a reminder that our planet is 4.5 billion years old and so the sea has been doing what it does with regularity and reliability for an awfully long time. We need the sea for our survival but it is completely indifferent to us and will continue to crash into eternity long after you and me and the whole human race are gone. It doesn’t care about the pandemic. It doesn’t care whether I have vertigo, how I dress or what I write about. That made me feel very small and to my surprise it was quite a relief. 

This thought chimes with a book I read recently—4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. This got a lot of coverage in the press as the basic premise is intriguing. If we live to the age of eighty then we have around four thousand weeks on Earth and Burkeman poses the question of how to make best use of this time. If you haven’t read 4000 Weeks then I recommend it. It’s full of thought-provoking ideas and refreshingly it runs counter to the avalanche of predictable self-help guides that advise us how to live more positively and make the most of every minute—in fact his previous book was called The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

I’m still trying to make my mind up about some of the ideas in the book but I do relate to what the author calls cosmic insignificance therapy. It’s hard to come up with something that’s completely original—this one has its feet firmly planted in Buddhism—but he presents it in a new way. It’s basically the idea that I saw played out in the waves—that in the scheme of things our day to day worries are extremely insignificant. When weighed down by stress I’ve often tried to get a sense of perspective by reminding myself that in ten years time this won’t matter.  Cosmic insignificance therapy just takes that thought and gives it an infinitely bigger perspective. 

It would be easy to interpret this as nihilism. But Burkeman is not saying that nothing matters. He acknowledges that we need to feed the baby, and go to work to earn money to pay the rent or mortgage. What he is saying is that we don’t need to do something extraordinary in order to live a good life. 

The positive thinking movement tells us that we can be whatever we want. It instructs us to delete the word impossible from our vocabulary. But that can lead to measuring our worth by how we seem to others and consequently to bad decisions. Make a nice lemon drizzle cake and someone will suggest you apply to The Great British Bake-Off. Become self-employed and suddenly the sky’s the limit—your efforts could blossom into a trillion-dollar global phenomenon. If you like to play around with words then maybe you’ll win the Booker. At the very least you should be aiming to write a bestseller. There’s nothing wrong with any of these aspirations if they really are what you want but theYou Can Be Whatever You Want mindset implies a duty to do something extraordinary in order to have meaning. Burkeman says that can lead to feeling overwhelmed and argues that we should not underestimate the importance of the ordinary, achievable things we do. Take pleasure in sharing your lemon drizzle cake with friends, in bringing good values to your work, in writing something that a handful of people get something from, or in offering your shoulder for a friend to cry on. 

The notion of cosmic insignificance can be liberating and empowering because it brings a sense of perspective but it doesn’t address the human desire to make a difference. The wish to leave something behind by which we can be remembered is one of the forces that drive creativity. It’s a way to cheat the finality of death. With cosmic insignificance Burkeman argues that ultimately we will all be forgotten. Steve Jobs wanted to ‘put a dent in the universe’ but who will remember the iPhone in a thousand years time? 

Another book I’ve read recently puts a different angle on this. Every Family Has A Story: How We Inherit Love and Loss is written by the psychotherapist Julia Samuel. Rather than emphasising our insignificance she shows through case studies of families she has worked with, how interconnected we are. We each have our own story but we are part of many other stories too—our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, even those we never knew. Patterns get handed down unconsciously and unchallenged because we do not recognise that things could be any other way. Samuel says that when she works with people who are stuck and hurting she wants to shout at them It didn’t start with you or even your parents. Look at the untold stories, unprocessed injuries and losses that have been handed to you by ghosts of the past and find a way to deal with them now so you don’t hand them down to the next generation. This focuses on the problems we hand on but there are of course many gifts we can pass on, not least by finding a way to deal with problems from the past. 

Both of these books are interesting and while their ideas are not entirely incompatible they do throw up some conundrums. One makes me feel insignificant and liberated from other people’s opinions. The other burdens me with the weight of responsibility to do my best for the people I love and have an impact on. But perhaps those things are not so incompatible after all. The reminders to be true to ourselves, to value the ordinary and to be glad that we might have an impact that lasts through a few generations are all ways to live life well. The thing is that we will never know what our legacy will be, and one thing for sure is that the waves won’t care. I’m off to make a lemon drizzle cake, play with some words and have a chat with my daughter. That’s enough for today. I’m happy to be insignificant. 

Photos: Mike Poppleton