It’s the usual setup for a scene (these days): two friends are on a Skype hangout on a Saturday morning. One friend proposes to the other this question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?
It’s a question that I think about a lot, especially when it comes to things. The stuff we collect, pin up on our bulletin boards, pack into scrapbooks. I’ve spent that last year systematically going through my grandmother’s stuff and (with her) deciding what should stay and what should go. All these things that were once so important being packed away, sold for pennies, sent to the dump.
I just spent this Pandemic Sunday cleaning through my desk, reorganizing my space for increased at-home work, and doing a similar exercise. My apartment has a grandma feel to it – there are lots of things around (though I like to think that I have arranged them in more of an “artistic” way than a “ohmygodtheclutteryouhoarder” way). I tend to hold onto notes and photos, gather small items or images from my travels, buy books I have no time to read. I like having things around me that remind me of beautiful times, of people I love, of the person I hope I’m becoming. And I often think of the day I die – someone coming into my space and seeing the same things and seeing mostly junk, wondering why I would hold on to these things. I imagine all of these precious items being thrown into the dump.
And certainly the meaning of some things change. I just tossed away some letters from grad school that already gave me what I needed (but the emotion attached to them a year ago – can you imagine!) My grandmother and I threw out a lot of things she gathered on her travels (who knew porcelain plates used to be the BIG thing in souvenirs?) And now, those things are just in the way, signifying nothing.
What’s that Macbeth quote?
“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But I often hold onto things because I don’t trust my memory. I want to be reminded – I need my memory backed up to a hard drive of sorts. Journals can do this, I suppose, but even as a writer I started to feel how little a simple journal could hold.
And in some way, the work we do as writers is reaching for that – the holding on to some Beauty or Truth or Whatever and preserving it and preserving ourselves in some way too. We all want to create something that matters.
But it is debilitating and useless for that to be the goal. It is too big, too nonspecific to be helpful.
So, back to the scene on Skype. Back to the question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?
If the moment we’re in now tells us anything it’s that our choices have ripple effects. How we choose to conduct our lives affects others. Our world has taught us to be so focused on individual success, to place us in constant competition, we forget that we do, ultimately, matter to each other.
Are we all going to be Superman and single-handedly save New York? No. And why would you want that? Sounds exhausting. I’d much rather be the Guardians of the Galaxy, fighting alongside friends, for better or worse.
So does any of it matter? Yes and no.
Yes because the work we do, what we put out into the world – you don’t know who its going to change, affect, transform, inspire, scare, motivate.
No because each individual thing is just part of your longer story. When we read or watch stories and fall in love with characters – remember that we tend to not judge characters so much on their failures, but on what they choose to do in the collective whole.
It is all equally meaningless and meaningful, beautiful and two feet away from the dump.
But I think that’s why it is all meaningful. Because it can all be taken away so quickly and become so meaningless.
That’s why I hold onto that rock I found on the beach on the Isle of Mann, or those plastic pearls my grandmother used to wear all the time, or the Valentine my mom wrote me just a month ago.
So go make something meaningless.