Do we matter? We fear we don’t. We fear nothingness, insignificance. We fear evaporation. We fear that in the last tabulation we make no contribution to the final sum. We fear coming and going and no one knowing.
That’s why it bothers us when a friend forgets to call or the teacher forgets our name or a colleague takes credit for something we’ve done or the airline loads us like cattle onto the next flight. They are affirming our deepest trepidation: no one cares, because we aren’t worth caring about. For that reason we crave the attention of our spouse or the affirmation of our boss, drop names of important people in conversations, wear college rings on our fingers, and put silicone in our breasts, flashy hubcaps on our cars, grids on our teeth, and silk ties around our necks. We covet some stilts.
Fashion designers tell us, “You’ll be somebody if you wear our jeans. Stick our name on your rear end, and insignificance will vanish.” So we do. And for a while we distance ourselves from the Too Smalls and enjoy a promotion into the Society of Higher-Ups. Fashion redeems us from the world of littleness and nothingness, and we are something else. Why? Because we spent half a paycheck on a pair of Italian jeans.
But then, horror of horrors, the styles change, the fad passes, the trend shifts from tight to baggy, faded to dark, and we’re left wearing yesterday’s jeans, feeling like yesterday’s news. Welcome back to the Tribe of the Too Smalls.
Maybe we can outsource our insignificance. By coupling our identity with someone’s Gulliver-sized achievement, we give our Lilliputian lives meaning. How else can you explain our fascination with sports franchises and athletes?
I am among the fascinated: an unabashed fan of the San Antonio Spurs. When they play basketball, I play basketball. When they score a basket, I score a basket. When they win, I dare to shout with the seventeen thousand other fans, “We won!” Yet how dare I make such a statement? Did I attend a single practice? Scout an opposing team? Contribute a coaching tip or sweat a drop of perspiration? No. I would if they asked. But I’m too insignificant, slow, old, uncoordinated.
Still, I hook my wagon to their rising star. Why? Because it separates me from the plebeians. It momentarily elevates me, knights me.
That philosophy motivated my fourth-grade friend Thomas to keep Dean Martin’s cigarette butt in a jar next to his bedside. Dean Martin crooned his way into the heart of 1960s America via television, radio, and nightclubs. He shared thin-air celebrity status with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. We lowborns could only admire such nobility from a distance. Thomas, however, could do more. When Dean Martin graced our West Texas town by appearing in a charity golf tournament, Thomas and his father followed him in the gallery. When the icon flicked his cigarette to the side, Thomas was there to snag it.
Who could forget the moment when we, the friends of Thomas, gathered in his bedroom to behold the holy stogie? We cashed in on the trickle-down principle of celebrity economy. Dean Martin was a star; Thomas owned Dean Martin’s cigarette; we knew Thomas. We were down-the-line beneficiaries of Dean Martin’s stardom.
Connect to someone special and become someone special, right?
Or simply outlive life. When the billionaire realizes that he will run out of years before he runs out of money, he establishes a foundation. No doubt some altruism motivates the move, but so does a hunger to matter.
We have kids for the same reason. Giving birth gives meaning to ourselves. Although parenthood is certainly a more noble reach for significance than showcasing Dean Martin’s cigarette butt, it is still, in part, just that. One day, when we die, our descendants will remember “good ol’ Dad” or “sweet ol’ Mom,” and we will extend our lives via theirs.
Italian jeans. Dean Martin’s cigarette butt. Foundations. Legacies. Forever looking to prove Bertrand Russell wrong. He was the fatalistic atheist who concluded, “I believe that when I die my bones will rot and nothing shall remain of my ego.”
“He can’t be right,” we sigh.
“He isn’t right!” Jesus announces. And in some of the kindest words ever heard, he allays the fear of the Stiltsvillians. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31 NIV).
What’s more inglorious than hair? Who inventories follicles? We monitor other resources: the amount of money in the bank, gas in the tank, pounds on the scale. But hair on the skin? No one, not even the man with the expanding bald spot, posts tiny number signs adjacent to each strand. We style hair, color hair, cut hair . . . but we don’t count hair.
God does. “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.”
Max Lucado, Fearless: Imagine Your Life without Fear (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012).
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