In part one of this three-part series, Simon Edwards, Lead Missioner for the Zacharias Trust, explores what the Christian faith says about the foundations for our personal significance in a world that places such a premium on status.
One fine day in California, in 1967, a lady, going for her evening walk, stumbled across a violin that had apparently been abandoned on the side of the road. She decided to take the violin home and, not herself being a violinist, gave it to her young nephew. Her nephew wasn’t that interested in the violin but gratefully accepted it anyway as any good nephew would. So the violin remained with the boy. The boy grew up and eventually married. His wife, when she discovered the violin, decided that she would like to learn to play it. That lady’s name was Teresa Salvato. So Teresa started taking lessons and then one day, in the Spring of 1994, now 27 years since the date the violin had been found by the side of the road, Teresa decided to take the violin to a violin store for a bit of a tune up.
If somebody had asked Teresa how much the violin was worth she would have replied that she had absolutely no idea. The reason she had no idea of the value of the violin was because she didn’t know anything about the violin. But the violin repairers quickly realised that the violin Teresa had brought in was no ordinary violin. It was a very special violin. So special, it even had its own name. The name of the violin was – The Duke of Alcantara. That was the name which had been given to the violin 267 years ago by the person who had made the violin, a man by the name of Stradivarius! Teresa had no idea the violin she had been learning to play on, the one found by the side of the road, was a Stradivarius and worth over $1million dollars.
Our identity cannot be understood without reference to our ultimate origin
Stradivarius violins remind us that some things in life are special. Some things in life are significant. Some things in life require us to treat them with care and dignity. But what is it that makes something significant? In a world of 7 billion people, what makes our lives significant?
We can know the value of a violin based on the identity of the violin. And we can know the identity of a violin based on the origin of the violin. Could it be the same for us? If so, then our value as human beings cannot be understood without reference to our true identity. And our identity cannot be understood without reference to our ultimate origin.
If this is true, what happens if we lose connection with our identity (who we really are) and our origin (where we really came from)? What then provides the framework for our understanding of human dignity and essential worth if, as society is increasingly doing, we remove God from the picture?
For the atheist who believes there is no creator God, and that there is nothing more to reality than a purely physical universe, then everything we are, everything we do, everything we think, everything we feel is, at bottom, just physical processes playing themselves out in a complex system of cause and effect.
To quote renowned psychologist and atheist BF Skinner: “Man is a machine. A complex machine of course. But in the end simply a machine and in that respect, his behaviour is completely determined in accordance with physical laws in operation.”
One is tempted to respond to this assertion by asking why we should believe anything Skinner says if everything he thinks and does is predetermined? But if this is what he believes, and it is what many people believe today, what makes anyone or anything special. If we are all just dancing to our DNA, then that makes DNA special, but it just makes us puppets. Somehow the part has become more special than the whole. We are not the main characters in the story anymore, our DNA is.
If a human being comes into the world with no innate identity, why do we feel the need to create one?
John Paul Sartre was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He argued that there is nothing that makes us essentially human, let alone essentially special. Sartre argued, as an atheist, that since there is no God who has designed us, then a human has no blueprint, no essence, no nature. Therefore, we must create our own nature, our own value, our own identity.
Simone De Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner, writing from this same existentialist perspective said, “one is not born a man or a woman, one becomes one. You lead your nature where you want it to go because it does not offer you a script, a plan, or a path…You are free to make yourself and remake yourself ad infinitum because you aren’t defined and don’t have to be defined by anything except your own desires”.
But here’s the question. If, in Sartre and De Beauvoir’s view, a human being comes into the world with no innate identity, why do we feel the need to create one. Where does that longing for a unique personal identity come? A dog has no such longings. Provided it is watered, fed, housed and patted, a dog is content. Cats, on the other hand, different story! Cats are narcissistic. But really, cats, dogs, other animals, they don’t concern themselves with existential questions about who they are. Why do we?
Don’t worry about what other people think about you, because they don’t
Why do we care whether or not our life is significant? I believe the reason why we have a fundamental human need to be significant is because we fundamentally are significant. Even our fairy stories tell us this: The Ugly Duckling; Cinderella; Shrek 1, 2 and 3; they all speak of the human longing to be somebody special. Sadly, we don’t often feel that significant or that special.
I spent the majority of my school years stifled by a constant sense of self-consciousness and an anxiety that actually, if I was honest with myself, I really wasn’t that significant, I really wasn’t standing out from the crowd, I really wasn’t anybody special.
I remember I worked in a supermarket after school and weekends pushing trolleys and stacking shelves for the princely sum of about $5/hour. Just saving a couple of hundred Aussie dollars took weeks of work, but for some reason I decided that it made sense for me to spend $300 of my hard-earned cash to buy a pair of really cool sunglasses, on the basis that this would greatly enhance my coolness factor. Now, they were cool sunglasses – Oakley Razor sunglasses – the sort of rainbow tinted wraparound sunglasses that a lot of the Australian cricketers were wearing at the time!
I believed, exactly as the advertisers wanted me to believe, if I wore these glasses, that would mean, by a process of indisputable logic, I too would be significant. I would become cool. I would be a somebody.
A wise person once said, “Don’t worry about what other people think about you, because they don’t.” I wish someone wise had pointed that simple truth out to me when I was a young man. It’s easy to fall into anxiety about how others rate us on the social scale of significance. There’s even a name for this type of anxiety, status anxiety.
One of our greatest fears as human beings is to be unseen
The philosopher Alain de Botton describes status anxiety like this, “People who hold important positions in society are commonly labelled ‘somebodies’, and everyone else we label nobodies. Somebodies are highly visible and admired. Nobodies are all but invisible.”
One of our greatest fears as human beings is to be unseen, to be invisible. But in a world with so many people, not everybody, we reason, can be a somebody. That, in essence, is the problem: nobody wants to be a nobody but not everybody can be a somebody; nobody wants to be a nobody but in a world of seven billion not everybody can be a somebody. Where does that leave us? It leaves us in competition, with everybody.
However, everybody in competition with everybody is an unhealthy foundation for human happiness and flourishing. Sadly however, competition is the narrative that we increasingly live by. Unsurprisingly, so many young people today are growing up with the view that unless they make it to the top they will never be significant and they will never be happy. And getting to the top normally means becoming wealthy or famous or the best in one’s field of study, sport, career or art. And unless we become wealthy or famous or the best in our field we have failed at life, we have failed as a person. We are a failure.
I want to tell you, that is the wrong narrative to live by: to equate failing with being a failure is to make the mistake of conflating what you do with who you are. But they’re not the same thing.