Friday, April 25, 2014

Immortality and the Human Quest for Significance

Is there one drive that especially characterizes us? In The Significant Life, attorney George M. Weaver identifies our drive to establish our self-importance:

  • Individual humans are not concerned so much about the survival of the species as they are about their personal survival or significance. In order to push ourselves beyond our confining space-time limits, we as individuals try to set ourselves apart from the rest of humanity. It is unsettling to admit that one is average or ordinary – a routine person. (7)

Weaver documents this in many ways:

  • Salvador Dali once said, “The thought of not being recognized [is] unbearable”…Lady Gaga sings, “I live for the applause, applause, applause…the way that you cheer and scream for me.” She adds in another song, “yes we live for the Fame, Doin’ it for the Fame, Cuz we wanna live the life of the rich and famous.” (7)

Perhaps one reason we never achieve our longed-for significance is that it always seems to be comparative. We need to be more significant than the next guy. Writer Gore Vidal had been very transparent about this:

  • “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” (58)

Clearly, this drive for significance tears at friendship, dividing instead of bringing together. The jealousy displayed by comedian Al Jolson is reflective of the human condition:

  • According to his biographer, “He once had a team of performing elephants fired because he thought the audience liked them too much.” (59)

Some are very candid about their quest for significance and pursue it without hesitation. But when anyone detracts from their esteem, they become murderous. Haman, the protagonist in the Book of Esther, planned to kill the entire Jewish race because of the disrespect of one Jew:

  • Haman went out that day happy and in high spirits. But when he saw Mordecai at the king’s gate and observed that he neither rose nor showed fear in his presence, he was filled with rage against Mordecai. (Esther 5:9)

For some, the closest they can come to immortality is the acclaim of the crowd. Even the fantastically successful never outgrow this quest. Napoleon foolishly boasted:

  • There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men… History I conquered rather than studied.” (12)

But what is so important about the “minds of men” that we so depend on their fleeting opinions for our “immortality?” Rather than immortality, this seems to represent a servile dependence on what others think. However, we tend to feel that the acclaim of others enlarges us.

People achieve their “immortality” in many different ways. In Fame, The Psychology of Stardom, psychologists Evans and Wilson argue:

  • What we try to create… is some illusion of permanence. The desire for permanence drives people to carve their name on trees and rocks, just like the handprints on Hollywood Boulevard. We need to have an impact on life – to leave something behind us when we go. (19)

Humanity so desires to attach itself to something greater to elevate self. However, success is never enough. Weaver cites President Lyndon B. Johnson as an example of this:

  • According to one commentator, “It is a curious footnote to history that long before he ran into trouble, Johnson had turned central Texas into a living monument to his heritage and his journey to the summit (the L.B.J birthplace, the L.B.J. boyhood home, the L.B.J. state park, the L.B.J. ranch and more).” (22)

However, “success” and significance can be achieved in other ways. Weaver writes about the opposite attempt to establish one’s mark on the world:

  • In 2005 Joseph Stone torched a Pittsfield, Massachusetts apartment building… After setting the blaze, Stone rescued several tenants from the fire and was hailed as a hero. Under police questioning, Stone admitted, however, that he set the fire and rescued the tenants because, as summarized at trial by an assistant district attorney, he “wanted to be noticed, he wanted to be heard, he wanted to be known.” (44)

Evidently, this drive for significance is so powerful that it can overrule the moral dictates of conscience. One mass-murderer gunman explained in his suicide note, “I’m going to be f_____ famous.” (45)

This drive for significance can even override all other affections. On December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman, a zealous fan of the Beatle, John Lennon, first obtained his idol’s autograph before gunning him down. He explained:

  • “I was an acute nobody. I had to usurp someone else’s importance, someone else’s success. I was  ‘Mr. Nobody’ until I killed the biggest Somebody on earth.” At his 2006 parole hearing, he stated: “The result would be that I would be famous, the result would be that my life would change and I would receive a tremendous amount of attention, which I did receive… I was looking for reasons to vent all that anger and confusion and low self-esteem.” (47)

By attaching himself to someone greater, Chapman was able to elevate himself. Was it “low self-esteem” or merely Chapman’s own way to achieve what everyone else is trying to achieve – importance? Weaver reports that:

  • More than two hundred people confessed in 1932 to the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. (50)

The need for importance is so powerful that it seems that people are willing to pay almost any price for it. However, observing the insubstantiality of this pursuit, some have converted absurd quest into a quest for ultimate meaning. It might take a moral-crusader form. The UN claims: “The precious dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value” (82-83). Even if true, is this mission also a reflection of the pursuit of significance, disguised as a “nobler” quest? Is it a deceptive perversion of something more immediate and tangible?

Meanwhile, others have forsaken the temporary attainments of this world in favor of attaining enlightenment and ultimately of being absorbed into a person-less nirvana, the only reality – a universal consciousness where individual distinctions do not exist. This is the monistic answer – a rejection of the illusory worldly strivings in favor of a singular other-worldly pursuit, a real immortality, or so it seems.

However, the poet Miguel de Unamuno protested that the:

  • “Tricks of monism avail us nothing; we crave the substance and not the shadow of immortality.” (84)

According to Unamuno, monism presents a false hope. To whom does it offer immortality if the individual no longer exists in the monistic heaven, but rather just a universal consciousness? Is this immortality any more substantial than a dead body thrown in the ground with a tree planted over it, eventually lifting its nutrients into its branches and fruit? Is it any more substantial than Napoleon’s hope of immortality in being remembered by others, by history, by something grander than himself?

Chapman felt himself elevated by Lennon’s autograph; others by achieving success and praise, even worship. It seems that all of these attempts to take hold of immortality are also attempts to join ourselves to something greater.

What do we make of this quest? Is it entirely aberrant or does it reflect something essential about our human reality? Often, our desires are curiously matched with real-world objects. We hunger, and there is food; we thirst, and there is drink; we tire and there is sleep; we are lonely, and there are friends and family. Is it possible that our desire for significance is also matched with a real-world fulfillment? Is there a God who has created us for relationship with Him? Is it possible that our pursuit to be connected to something greater than we is a reflection of a divinely implanted desire for God?

This desire remains strangely unfulfilled in most people. Could it be that it has been misdirected onto the wrong objects - success and notoriety? The Prophet Isaiah offered an alternative solution consisting of spiritual food:

  • “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money,    come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live… Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-7)

To receive from God is to be free from our need to establish our self-importance, from the endless burden to prove and to define ourselves! Instead, we were created to be beloved by God and to love Him back.

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