Dear Jumbo: The importance of living importantly

Today is an important day. I hope you feel that way, for a good education should help one develop a sense of importance in the work one does.

I don’t mean it in an egocentric way. The ego has a bad rep for a good reason: The world has indeed borne countless wrecks due to some egocentric people. Yet a world where people don’t believe in their work and have little to zero sense of importance in life is just as bad. Combine both and you have a surefire recipe for our troubled world: Relatively few people believe too much in an ideology they take to be their whole identity, while the majority take a fatalistic view that their lives don’t matter. Thinking either too highly or lowly of oneself is self-centered.

No school can teach that sense of importance. As such, many young people are left confused and turn to popular ideologies, internalizing values without properly examining them. Consider the common parlance: “Love is good, fear is bad.” True for some parts, but definitely not enough.

Have you ever listened to someone breaking into tears because she, in the name of love, did not speak up about sexual abuse? How about witnessed someone trying with his every fiber to display bravado while masking his Fear of Being Fearful? If so, you might have, like me, wondered if many social issues come from that simplistic morality that young people ingest but never fully digest.

I’m critical, but I have a lot of hope. I’ve seen and become good friends with beautiful young people, many of whom are with me today. You are both critical and receptive. You dare to embrace your messy sides and act out of a genuine appreciation of your whole, fuller self. You feel a sense of importance in your work and treat it with great respect, while paradoxically don’t take the self too seriously. The latter is a tough line to walk, but it’s possible.

From my experiences and observations, a sense of importance comes gradually when we open up, allow ourselves to be touched by life and then honestly witness our inner responses. Remember when people tell you “Don’t feel bad?” I’d say, “Feel first, and see if it’s really that bad.”

Another way to develop this sense is to be with people who feel that their work is important. I often ask people I work with, “What makes you care?” not just once but many times. If we don’t sense from each other a satisfying answer or at least an honest attempt, chances are we will not work well together. Slowly, we will get frustrated, lose interest, grow cynical… Please, don’t let yourself get that way. Offer the world meaningful possibilities, not endless cynicism.

In a sense, my Dear Jumbo column this semester has been an auto-ethnography, a study with a sample size of one. I hope it has brought clarity into the most fuzzy process of how a person develops a sense of importance in their life and work. The root word of important means “being of consequence.” It is the awareness that the work we do has a consequence, that our life matters. It may not seem apparent at first, and it may matter for a different reason, but it does. So please, my friends, live importantly.