The Insignificance of the Individual

The Insignificance of the Individual

It’s difficult in our world to remember our insignificance. Our lives are designed with the individual in mind. We are reminded we’re special and unique every day and the belief that we were created for a specific purpose and that this Earth and everything we have was endowed to us by a creator. But when we sit to think about our significance in relation to our species – to the overall population of the world… It’s impossible not to realize that we may in fact be insignificant. Not only do I think that we are insignificant, I think it’s a good thing, and one of the best realizations.

Marcus Aurelius the Roman emperor from 161 AD to 180 AD, wrote in his personal journals while on the throne:

“Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us—how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space—and most of it uninhabited. How many people there will be to admire you, and who they are. So keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of yourself. Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a mortal. And among the things you turn to… (remember) that everything you see will soon alter and cease to exist. Think of how many changes you’ve already seen.* ”

In my upcoming book, Smile Your Last Breath Away, the two characters have a conversation about this. Las is a sage with more questions than answers, and Jake is a man so lost the monotonous hum of being lost chips away at him every day. Las says after reading this quote:

“Death is the greatest equalizer of all. No one evades it, the Emperor of Rome, the beggar, the billionaire, you and me. We all slide into the abyss of time which blankets the endless universe. This is the wonderful tool of insignificance.”

What do you mean?” Jake asked curiously.

Las’ eyes lit up. “How many people are alive on Earth right now?”

“I think it’s around eight billion.”

“Exactly right and climbing. That’s a ton of people, do you have any ability to comprehend that number?”

“Nope, not a shot.”

“Yeah, it’s very hard to wrap our brain around. We’re just one tiny little ant among those eight billion - insignificant. But infinitely more insignificant in relation to the 108 billion people who have ever lived. Marcus Aurelius, King Leonidas I, Cleopatra — three names from thousands of years ago. How many of the 100 billion who are not alive do we ever even think about for a few moments out of our millions of life moments? What about the billions of homo sapiens who lived even before we started recording history?

“Herodotus, considered to be the father of western history, is credited as the first to systematically investigate and record our history, he lived from 484 BC to 425 BC, that’s as recently as 2500 years ago. His stories, and every other historian since’s work, speak of an infinitesimally small number of people relative to all those who lived during the times they write of and even more infinitesimally small relative to all who have lived. We talk of a few kings and queens, of the people who had imaginably impacted a large number of people and history. What about the billions of common people? The people who woke up, worked, played their part, and died, never to be thought of again. Only a few generations later an ancient and forgotten memory of the past. That is who we are, you and me sitting here. Even 99.9% of the rich and famous. No matter the money, no matter how important in our world today. How many people will think of them a few generations from now? And for how long? What about a hundred or two hundred years from now? What about one thousand if our species makes it that far?

“You, me, and every single person we know are in the category of people who will be forgotten with the billions before us. If every human to ever exist was represented by one grain of sand and compiled into a giant sphere. That sphere’s diameter would be roughly 400km or 250 miles, covering the distance from Paris to Geneva. Resting on the surface of the Earth that same sphere would reach up to the International Space Station in low-earth orbit. In total, a sphere that takes almost five hours to drive across and reaches into space… and we are among those forgotten and insignificant grains. Faceless and nameless in history.”

Blood surged to Jake’s capillaries causing his face to become red, heat separated from the blood. Am I offended? He thought. But why? Was it the reality of Las’ words? That Jake had been thinking he was insignificant but didn’t want to admit it? It was a catch-22, hearing it out loud made him feel a sense of ease, that he wasn’t alone in this thought, but it also solidified the reality of being insignificant. The very thought of insignificance in direct conflict with the micro-level importance around which society is designed, declaring war against the all-purposeful individual. We tell ourselves we’re the exception, that we matter, and that it’ll be different for us. The programming reassures us that we’re individually important. Why wouldn’t it if we’re the ones programming the programming? Jake would be forgotten forever by his own bloodline in a few generations at the most and way less by everyone else.

“Significance and importance is programmed into our everyday.” Las continued, “Even if someone spends their entire life helping others, every scene of their own movie has themselves in it, by the pure nature of living it’s impossible for us not to be the main character in our own movie. Everything in our movie and around us by intimate association has more significance because we saw, experienced, thought, or cared about it. It’s practically impossible for something to have significance in our life if we don’t know that we don’t know it. Intimate association in the micro makes it easy to forget the macro— that we’re just one infinitesimally small and insignificant grain of sand.”

In relation to our own species that is alive right now, we are individually insignificant. We’re even more insignificant in relation to all those who have lived and will live. Our planet is infinitesimally more insignificant relative to the universe. Does all of this mean we don’t matter?  Does life not matter in a sea of so much insignificance? Can life have meaning amidst this insignificance? I don’t only think so, I know so. How then?

See you in two weeks.

‘til our last breath,

James Kiesewtter


*Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2003), Book 4, part 3.

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