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Rainy Day Musings on My Insignificance

It has occurred to me that I serve no purpose. I don’t say this because I am struck with some morbid debilitating melancholy. I don’t say it because I am depressed by self-doubt. I don’t say it because I am afflicted with self-loathing. No, all in all, I’m okay with myself. Yes, improvements could be made, but overall I’m okay. At least for now. Still, three immediate points need to be made.

One, a cold hard rain is falling outside my window.

Two, I’m saying I serve no purpose, not that have no purpose.

Here’s the definition of “have”(today I’m using the English Oxford Living Dictionary):  

  1. Possess (a quality, characteristic, or feature)
  2. Provide or indulge oneself with (something)
  3. Be made up of; comprise.
  4. Used to indicate a particular relationship.
  5. Be able to make use of (something available or at ones disposal).
  6. Have gained (a qualification).
  7. Possess as an intellectual attainment; know (a language or subject).

I clearly have a purpose. My very existence mandates I have a purpose. Well-being. Health. Self-improvement. I have qualities and characteristics and features. Who doesn’t. Yes, I do indulge myself (sometimes). Not answering the phone. The extra glass of wine. The money I spend on books, cooking magazines, the occasional t-shirt advertised on Facebook. I’m made up of a seemingly endless assortment of experiences, influences, memories, thoughts, feelings, and relationships. I have a wife. I have friends. I have acquaintances. I have enemies. I make use of many many things. How could I not? I have gained qualifications. Two, almost three. And I know a hell of a lot of things. I’ve been around for a while after all. I have purpose. But none of this is what I’m talking about.

Here’s the definition of “serve” (again the English Oxford Living Dictionary):

  1. Provide (an area or group of people) with a product or service.
  2. Be employed as a member of the armed forces.
  3. Spend (a period) in office, in an apprenticeship, or in prison.
  4. Present (food or drink) to someone.

At first glance, it would seem I also serve a purpose. While I do not provide anyone with a product or service, at least not in the formal sense, I’m not in the armed forces, and I’m not in an office, apprenticeship or prison, I do provide someone with food and drink. Which leads me to the third immediate point I need to make.

Three, when I say I serve no purpose I’m talking about the big picture, the grand scheme of things, the whole damn universe, not the everydayness of life. In the everydayness  of things I cook my wife’s dinners and she counts on my doing so. I serve a purpose. I share my body with some 90 million microbes. About 57% of the cells in my body are not mine. They belong to around ten thousand other species. I’m a walking ecosystem. I definitely serve a purpose every day. I keep 90 million microbes alive, not to mention all the tiny creatures making their home in and on my skin, and I present food and drink to my wife, just to name two of the more important services I provide. But again, these kinds of services are not what I’m talking about.

Perhaps if I quote John Lennon it will help to make my point. Actually, perhaps if I tear All You Need is Love[1] apart a bit, leaving out the “all you need is love” bit, you’ll understand.

There's nothing you can do that can't be done Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy
Nothing you can make that can't be made
No one you can save that can't be saved
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time
It's easy

There's nothing you can know that isn't known
Nothing you can see that isn't shown
There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be
It's easy

I’m a big Beatles fan and I know the song was more than well received in 1968. All you need is love, and flower power. But for me at least, while love is great, love is imperative, it’s not all we need, not in the face of the above lyrics. Not in the face of one’s utter irrelevance, so callously made obvious by Lennon. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I relate better to what Devin McKinney wrote about the song[2]:

Even the anthem written as benedictory to the Beatle-hippie triumph, “All You Need Is Love,” was conflicted: buoyed by an aura of revelry, it was at its core as bone-tired and fuzzy-tongued as the ragged end of a long party. John sang the words of the title with an unmistakable flatness of vocal aspect, laying sarcasm and the smack of chewing gum between the lines.

And, of course, “it” isn’t easy. More than not “it” is hard. Certainly learning how to play the game, which ever game you’re talking about, can be hard. Ian MacDonald described the “It’s easy” refrain as “half-ingenuous, half-sarcastic.”[3] However, I digress. I don’t really care if the song was the flower power anthem of all time or the most shallow, lazy, cynical lyric ever written. My point here is that it nicely represents how I feel about things on this raining cold day. Nothing I have done hasn’t been done before. Nothing I can imagine hasn’t been imagined before. It’s even possible, nothing I have thought hasn’t been thought before.

Over dinner I asked my wife what the difference was between having a purpose and serving a purpose. Without hesitation she said: “Having a purpose is about identity. Serving a purpose is about utility.” She was right. Having a purpose is easy, in that I am the purpose. But serving a purpose, having genuine and unique utility, now that’s something else. I serve no unique utility, or if the word utility seems too mechanical, substitute efficacy, or effectiveness, or even worth.

Remembering we’re taking about the really big picture, it’s time to ask: So where’s the light?

Václav Havel wrote, and I must confess I don’t remember where, that the Soviet dominance in eastern and central Europe collapsed in part due to the almost entirely unnoticed actions of individuals. He gave this example: A person writes an samizdat essay, makes twelve carbon copies which are handed from reader to reader. The act itself is insignificant—twelve copies of one essay read by a handful of people in the face of Soviet oppression. However, Havel insists that the accumulation of virtually invisible acts brought down the great Soviet edifice. If true, that unseen writer with his almost unnoticed essay had a purpose in the big scheme of things. 

Let me put it another way. The moral and ethical integrity of an act is not determined by its efficacy. Years ago when the world began acting to end apartheid in South Africa, I withdrew my $500 from the Bank of America because of that bank’s investments in that country. I wrote a letter to the bank president explaining the reasons for my decision and actions. I never heard back from the president. I dare say, the withdrawal of my pitiful $500 went unnoticed in the bank. However, two things are important here.

First, the moral integrity of my decision and action was not undermined by the efficacy of the action. Regardless of the acts almost meaninglessness in the big picture, the bank, it still had value and served a purpose, in this case the purpose of moral/ethical integrity. Obviously I’m making an assumption here, that moral and ethical integrity are import in the big picture.

Two, like the thousands of invisible samizdat writers in Eastern Europe years ago, the accumulative effect of little people like me removing our money from a big bank did eventually have an impact, and since I was one of the invisibles, I too served a purpose.

I think that’s the best I can do, though more thought may be needed. Or, perhaps, a sunny day would help.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

[1] All You need is Love by the Beatles, credited to Lennon—McCartney, but written by John Lennon.

[2] McKinney, Devin. Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 200.

[3] MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. London: Fourth Estate, 1994, p. 210.

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