The Paradox of Our Perceived Insignificance

Not much life out there...“It won’t make a difference.”

“My actions will have no impact at all.”

“The issue is so large, anything I do will have practically no effect.”

Let us think about this central existential question – how significant is our life? What are the limits of our own individual impact? The paradox is that we can only make a relatively tiny impact, yet also that contribution is simultaneously great. As one of out 7 billion people, we are insignificant, yet individually our potential is vast, colossal. How absurd it for us to think we could transform the world in a lifetime. That may happen occasionally, but those who receive the accolade hardly deserve it more than thousands of other relatively or totally unknown people who, through their ideas and actions, have contributed just as much to the wider good.

I am only one, / But still I am one. / I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something; / And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
Edward Everett Hale, author (1822-1909)

If one consciously tries to change the state of things and have a meaningful life, you could potentially influence from hundreds to millions of people’s attitude through conversation, great works of theory, or great social deeds, or one of many others. These are all great contributions to both treating current problems and trying to figure out how to solve them.

The implication of our relative insignificance is the fragility and specialness of life, this deserving respect and right to life that all living beings inherently possess.

Good things happen – genuine progress – because thousands upon thousands of people work very hard day after day, week after week, year after year, for perhaps hundreds of years; gradually though, ideas change and violent and outdated modes of behaviour are dropped. If all those determined, curious and above all hard-working people all decided, “Well what’s the point, I’m only one person,”where would we be today? Conversely, if twice as many had decided to commit to pursuing the greater good, where might we be today? What kind of a world might we find ourselves in?

It is a dishonour to ourselves and each other to lead selfish lives, where our net impact on life – be it animals, family, friends, strangers, supporting unethical practices – is shockingly negative. Indeed, often we celebrate these very people the most.

Example 1: Typical consumer – a life spent buying and consuming. Huge amounts of resources are consumed for constant purchasing and updating of car, house, clothes, etc. Also, huge amounts of money are given to the largest corporations and the worldwide social and environmental damage is great, as those corporations exploit the smallest, poorest producers to make a profit.

Example 2: The Humble Hippy – lives in a hut, getting by with the bare essentials, making their own fertiliser, consuming no animal products, respects life in its entirety — these individuals have a net positive impact: many less beings suffer. Just one less burger eaten equates to a slight reduction in the overall suffering. It all mounts up.

Example 3: The Activist – everything the hippy does but with more on top – they help spread change through education and the impact their money can bring when spent wisely.

An example of type 3 would be Ray C Anderson. He is a fascinating reminder of the power of ideas to change, and just how easily one can go from one of the largest “plunderers” of the world’s resources and life to  activist. After reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, Anderson – CEO of a multi-billion dollar – argued that not only the modern industrial system was destroying the planet, but that industrial leaders were the ones most responsible and with enough power to prevent a serious crisis. He then committed to have his company eliminate any negative impact it may have on the environment by the year 2020, as well as creating a foundation to spread this concept and urge others to do the same. He even spoke out at a conference of business leaders, addressing them as his “fellow plunderers.” If more followed in Mr Anderson’s example, the state of things would change quite rapidly indeed – if change comes from above, from those who are most responsible, huge amounts of resources could be organised towards making all industry more sustainable and environmentally-neutral.

Naturally, there is a continuum and anywhere in the right direction is great progress – just like the mass control of a ping pong game, when enough are moving in the right direction the whole will make big movements in that direction and then things can get very interesting indeed.

Our potential impact is a paradox indeed – in the grand picture, individually we are both relatively insignificant, yet also our potential is huge. The boundaries of the individual in the whole – by oneself, seemingly insignificant, yet together, those small fractions add up to the whole.

Our actions further seem insignificant and feeble when there are such solid cultural structures around us that constrain and reduce many of our creative, nourishing, validating endeavours to vapid, hollow shells of what we are supposed to be (advertising, etc, pointless endeavours). It should come as no surprise people are unhappy in a world that is very very removed and detached from the natural way we would be living. This is not necessarily wholly incompatible with technology, however it does mean we should ask the question of “Should we be doing this? Is this a good use of our resources, both physical and our mental?”

Reality of our own feeling of a lack of control/effect – the consequences of all our actions from the big to the minute, have effects and contribute to the whole – from buying a burger to being friendly to strangers – the key thing is that we don’t SEE those beneficial or negative consequences. This has a two-fold effect of a) we don’t realise the bad things that are caused by our seemingly trivial decisions/actions and b) we feel unmotivated to even be virtuous, because we don’t see and tangibly feel the rewards, it doesn’t seem worth all the extra effort, therefore we won’t bother/it’s not worth it.

If one can cultivate an awareness, an appreciate, of the good and bad that their actions do that they cannot see, (obviously this requires some thinking/imagination, but it is a learned skill we can all practice), then one does start deriving the most amazing benefit – this effervescent feeling, a radiance or aura – very hard to describe without using such fanciful words – that  feeling is what those words are trying to convey to us, whereas too many of us brush them off as quaint and outdated, irrelevant. The opposite could not be more the case.

If you added up all the cumulative positive consequences of that action for what number of people and fellow animals, their environments, livelihood etc

On the grander scale, the manner in which life exists as we know it, is all the more special. Regardless of whether or not there are other sentient beings in other parts of the universe, life itself is very special – particular due to the incredulous rarity it is. We may be surrounded by life, but life on Earth, is surrounded by lifelessness. This void of life makes the Earth the most special place we know if in the observed universe – does this specialness, which we share with all life on this planet, not constitute the sanctity of life? Because of this should we not care for and nurture all life, from other fellow animals, to all living things? Does this very fact not make killing the most grievous harm? Is consciousness and existence itself is the greatest gift ever bestowed upon you, is taking life away not the most heinous act?

Agree? Disagree? Got something to add? Please share your thoughts

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