In the many, many discussion I have had with fellow adolescents about what the heck we are going to do with our lives, I’ve noticed a few trends. The first of these is that none of us really has any clue. The second, the even more universal and poignant commonality to all of our young, idealistic fledgling life plans, is simply this: we all just want to matter. As usual, this has inspired some questions for me: What is behind our compulsion to matter? Do adults who have already made their contributions to society feel like they matter, or is this desire (like so many that college students have) one that we grow out of?
There are, of course, innumerable things that could drive a person to want to make a difference. It could be a natural altruism and desire to help people, if you believe human nature is like that, or it could be something that one’s religion stipulates. But besides those obvious answers, why do we (meaning, I) try so hard to make a lasting impact on the people around us, and the world at large?
My guess is this: we need to exist to people other than ourselves. Even though we might believe that humans are benevolent creatures, we are also afraid we aren’t, and that life really is “poor, nasty, bruteish, short.” During our lives on earth we are drawn to careers that have a deep and meaningful impact on a great number of people. In criticism to my scathing indictment of children who want to be famous, a fellow young friend wrote, “The struggle to be famous and the struggle to be remembered are quite possible one of the greatest struggles of our time. If our names are not carried on past our deaths, our existence on this Earth is forgotten and quite possibly fruitless.” And I have to agree with this, at this point in my life. I want to have a meaningful impact on a great number of people, and I’d like to be well known. At my age, I do judge my potential future life by how many people I have touched and changed. I am afraid of being lost and forgotten in the apathetic anonymity that life looks like from here. I want to choose my career and my life path so that I am known and remembered, because that is the only way that I can qualify my life right now.
I sometimes hope that this desire to make a heartfelt difference in other people’s lives is a sign that we know that there is more to life than money (which is what all young idealists like myself want to believe). However, as deeply as we want to make a difference, there are precious few who are signing up to become Mother Therese, or even go into low-paying but “rewarding” (in respect to my argument) careers, like teaching. College students are misguided to tie their financial solvency in with their impact on others. I have to believe that every older person feels like they make a lasting difference, or they have another way to feel that their life isn’t fruitless.
When I ask my peers who matter most them, when I ask myself who matters most to me, the answer is far humbler than our aspirations. The most common answer: our parents. My parents have certainly taught me the most and touched me the most deeply, and I read that “mom” is the most commonly given answer when kids are asked who their heroes are. So why is it that any young girl who says she wants most to be a mother met with such deep scorn? And I have virtually never heard a young guy list “be a father” as something they want to accomplish by the time they’re thirty. If all we want is to make lasting difference on people that will carry our names on after our deaths, families are absolutely the best way. We have tricked ourselves into believing that our jobs must be dramatic and sweeping and glamorous or they are worth nothing, and that dreams beyond the workplace are worth nothing at all. What young people fail to realize is that one’s job doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be the measure of one’s life.
As such, I must conclude that we will grow out of clamoring so desperately for a way to feel like we matter. I will someday cease to care that I’m not a World Famous Life Changer, because I will have other things that satiate my need to connect and rescue me from the vast unknown. That’s my answer to the argument: we shouldn’t care if our names are carried on after our deaths. We can matter for people, exist for people other than ourselves, without the mass fanfare and fan base that we adolescents so deeply desire. We just need to change our definition of what it means to matter, and realize that the fruit of life is much more subtle and sweet than any of us could have guessed.
I think there’s a name for this, what is it called? Oh, yes. Maturity. And I, for one, have a long way to go.