I am now, at this stage of life, largely irrelevant. I like it like that. It has given me some perspective on my almost seven decades of living. A few questions I have heard or bumped up against in my life I can now answer. I suppose the meaning of life is still “42” as mentioned in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. I suppose some questions must remain unanswered, or at least the answer isn’t known. But I was able to answer one question…even though it took me almost thirty years.
We were flying into New York City long before the tragedy of 9/11, back when Pilots delighted in flying you around Manhattan before landing you safely on the ground. You saw the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State building, The World Trade Towers, the Brooklyn Bridge, and a glimpse of the hustle and bustle of a large concentrated city.
I had just finished pointing out to my daughters and my wife, Kathy, that during working hours (nine to five) Manhattan was the most densely populated place on Earth. Something like 14 million people crammed into that tiny space for the workday. I got the appropriate “oohs” and “ahhs” from my family. My one daughter grew thoughtful.
I thought she was trying to picture what fourteen million people crammed into a small island looked like. She wasn’t. She was thinking. Like a lot of ten year olds, her thoughts weren’t any I would have come up with. For this is what she asked me:
“Dad, with fourteen million people there…how do you become significant?”
I was dazed. I shrugged it off with a gentle laugh placing the answer on her Mom to provide. “You’ll have to ask Mommy, that question is too smart for me.”
I never forgot it. I didn’t know how to answer it. I do now.
I have to digress for a bit. I did know the answer back when my daughter asked the question. I just didn’t know I did. My Father hinted at it when we were at a funeral. Like a lot of young people I did not know, nor understand, the finality of death. The brutal rift between the living and the dead. When someone is dead, they are gone. Only the living remain to miss them.
I was pretty cavalier about the deceased. It was a neighbor from a few doors down. I didn’t know him much more than to say Hello when I walked by. Or to occasionally earn some money by cutting his lawn or shoveling snow off his driveway. He always gave out full size candy bars at Halloween, and nobody forgot that. He had no children - which was unusual for our street, or any street after the War. Just a nice old guy…gone.
I made some inane remark that only the callousness of youth and ignorance can come up with. My Dad merely turned my shoulder to point me towards a group of maybe five people standing near the coffin, they were bent together in shared grief. The weight of loss bending them together like wind bends weeds. Each of them was shuddering with grief, tears, and laughter (and yes, those go together at funerals), making their huddle too intimate to stare at.
When I turned away my Dad said:
“If just one person cries a legitimate tear at your funeral, just one, you will have lived a life worth living. To know that one person genuinely will miss you, is sad that you are gone, but glad that you lived…that is enough. This man (pointing to the small huddle still going on at the head of the coffin) must have been remarkable.“
I didn’t get it then. I do now.
I wrote my daughter today. I explained my answer to her question…finally.
“How do you become significant?”
It is rather easy. Just keep being yourself long enough for someone else to find out who you are. We often mistake: Power, Popularity, Position or Fame, for significance. Those can be, but often are not, signs of significance. Think of all the famous people who have lived in your lifetime and passed on. What significance does that have in your life? For most of us the answer is: none.
Sure we miss their music, their plays, their movies, their impact on Society, or their speeches…but they have no significance in our lives. We feel bad for just a moment: “He was so young, she had her whole future in front of her…etc… .” Maybe we hear a song they did and become wistful for a second, then our thoughts and memories move on.
There is a reason that we call people we love our “significant other.” It replaces all the other labels we might use...because love makes us significant. I once heard a millionaire remark to another millionaire that he had lost seven figures in a bad trade. The other millionaire said that was a significant loss.
I was startled when the first millionaire replied: “Only in monetary terms. In the big picture it was insignificant.“ The other millionaire must have read my mind, because he said what I was thinking.
“What? You lost millions and that is insignificant?”
The first millionaire smiled:
“I have my health. I have people who love me. I make my living doing something I enjoy. Those are significant.“
Just like my Dad hinted at me all those years ago…this man gave me another hint to ponder.
Significant is not a number. A million people can know your name and still render you insignificant. One person can crumble under the loss of your friendship, love, or companionship - and that would be significant.
Just keep being you. You can’t judge your significance to another, only they can, and they will…as long as you just keep being yourself. I am honored to know a lot of significant people - and I tell them so!