mnmlist: The Case of Mistaken Significance

Oh man, I’ve got problems

First off, I’m trying to realize my dream of writing for a living.  I’ve been at it for 6 months and I’m not making money.  I’m not broke as I earn money from other sources and have savings to draw off for living expenses.  I also have a supportive girlfriend, family and friends.  But I am afraid I won’t be able to realize my dream.  If I don’t, it’ll mean I’m a loser.  It’s a big, horrible problem.

Another problem is my diet.  A couple months ago I started practicing the Paleolithic diet, which suggests that humans are not genetically set up to consume domesticated foodstuffs like grains and sugar.  The diet mostly consists of eating vegetables and meat—no grains, no legumes, no processed foods.  I was doing good for a while, but my girlfriend and I started holding community brunches every Sunday.  Between 10 and 30 people show up each week, each contributing dishes.  The brunches have been great, but I’ve had trouble not consuming grain products.  It’s been tough to get back on track the next day.  My blood sugar fluctuates quite a bit and sometimes (like now) I feel a little lightheaded detoxing from the sugar.  If I don’t stick to this diet, I’ll be a flabby, energy-deprived loser, which is an awful problem.

I have communication problems.  My phone was broke last week, which was a huge clusterfuck.  I relented and got an iPhone the other day.  It works great, but I can’t seem to figure out how to sync my Google calendar with with my iCal for realtime updates.  I’m afraid I’ll put an appointment in Google and it won’t sync with iCal (or vice-versa), which might cause me to double book or something.  People will think I’m a flake.  My life will unravel around me.

I have housing problems.  My girlfriend and I are discussing moving in together.  We want a nice place in Brooklyn, preferably around Park Slope or Cobble Hill—two beautiful, tree and brownstone-lined neighborhoods.  But we also want someplace to duck out on weekends in the country—maybe something in the Catskills or in Pennsylvania.  We’re not sure where we’ll live or how we’ll make the country thing happen.  Without quiet, spacious homes, we might not achieve inner peace and enlightenment, which is a pretty significant problem.

I can’t think of any other problems at the moment, but I’ll post them in the comment section when I do.

If a problem is a flame, significance is its oxygen. No significance, no problem.

This is easy to see with problems as as shamefully bourgeois as mine—the kind of problems most of us deal with.  We have no “real” problems.  Most (if not all) of us have computers, which puts us ahead of at least 85% of the world’s population in wealth.  We are reading a blog, which suggests we’re on the younger side and are probably relatively healthy.  We probably live in America or some other first world nation and enjoy a stable, non-violent society.  The majority of problems that occupy our consciousness are probably pretty trivial, centering around ourselves and our unmet desires.

A fraction of us have problems that seem inherently significant.  Terminal illness, major health problems, death of a close friend or family member, eviction, impending or realized poverty, etc.  We believe there is no spin on them that would make them insignificant.

But what if nothing had any significance outside of the meaning we give it?  Let’s take terminal illness as an example.  It seems inherently significant, but, as Chuck Palahniuk writes in “Fight Club,” “On a long enough timeline. The survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”  We’re all going to die.  Every important figure throughout history has lost against some form of terminal illness.  Why are we or our loved ones so special?  What if death had no significance?

I’m not suggesting we deny that things have meaning to us.  For example, we might decide  ending war has meaning (surely a higher caliber issue than syncing calendars on an iPhone).  But what if we recognized that the meaning and significance we give something is ours, not the thing’s?  Believing this, we could act and whether we achieved the results we wanted or not, it would not mean anything about ourselves or the world.

The worst part of giving significance is that it often compels us to not act at all.  The results have such grave implications, so we just avoid the issue altogether.  For example, we won’t submit that manuscript or ask that girl out because if we don’t receive the result we seek, it’s significant.  It might confirm that we are the losers we think we are.  Better to do nothing instead and not receive confirmation.

What if we could just act without making the problem or the results significant?

With these these thoughts in mind, consider the following:

  1. List the big problems in your life?
  2. What meaning do you give them? For example, not getting a raise means you aren’t valued or important, or not getting a return call from a girl you like means you’re unattractive.
  3. What if these problems had no intrinsic significance? What if not getting a raise or not getting a return call meant nothing?  They lacked significance.
  4. In what ways would you act if the results of your actions lost their significance? What if getting rejected was not significant?  What if dying was not significant?  How might you act if these were the case?
  5. Choose one action you’ve been avoiding because of its significance and take it now.

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