Why What You Do Matters

I’m going to go ahead and post this now because otherwise I will talk myself out of it. This is partially a rant and partially a reaction to reading THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.

In this post, nothing important is realized, no lives are changed. Thar be dragons.

I don’t know if I would recommend reading this to anyone, but I won’t stop anyone, either. (Hence the posting.)

tl;dr – I get existential sometimes, but everything everywhere everyone everywhen makes a difference.


No matter what you might think right now, what you do matters. It makes a difference.

You cannot be held accountable for every single consequence of your life. That’s the prize of sentience: other people are (probably) self-aware and capable of agency in their own decisions, despite your influence.

That’s the price of sentience: you have to hold up your end of the bargain, and if you decide to make this world a worse place (or don’t decide not to hard enough), then that’s on you.

That’s the catch, of course. It is one thing to resist the temptation to be someone who actively makes things worse. Chances are good that you don’t go out and hurt people overtly with your actions. You don’t tear (that many) people down with malice aforethought, with planned words that you directly intend to cause harm. You don’t go kill people.

These extremes disguise the truth, though. The truth is that a lot of people, a lot of the time, don’t think of their fellow human beings as worth consideration. That guy? He’s not me, and I don’t know him, so inconveniencing myself for his benefit is not worth my time.

There seems to be a gulf in my terminology. Is there a word or phrase for not meaning to do something hard enough to cause an effect?

“Well, yes, I did not INTEND to burn down the house. I left the stove leaking gas and then fell asleep with a lit cigarette and left various flammable materials near every potential firewall. But I never MEANT for it to happen.”

Yes, that example is a bit hyperbolic. And it only covers one side of things.

“Well, yes, I do WANT everyone (at least the good people) to have a good day. I did not help the man struggling to wrangle three kids, a dog, and two dozen bags of groceries, and left my own dog’s poop right next to the walkway where someone is bound to step in it, and flipped off that woman who took the right of way when it was actually her turn. But I really MEAN to make the world a better place.”

I think sometimes, due to the nature of our consciousness, we can get our heads sort of stuck up our own asses. Everything is head-o-centric. Just try focusing your awareness on the side of your left knee. (Either side. See, choices!) Center yourself there. You might start to notice a bit more of the sensations that have been constantly reported and ignored by your nervous system, but in the end, you can’t escape from between your two eyes.

(Serious note: this perspective is from someone who has at least passable functionality from the five basic senses. I wonder if it is different for others, especially the blind. On the conscious level, humans are wired to rely on sight first, sound second. Eyes and ears are close neighbors to the brain.)

My point here is that self-centered habits are part of the human condition. There’s nothing wrong with having them, and trying to deny they exist is a lot less helpful than accepting them and trying to decide what to do with them.

Deep down, everyone is a self-centered jerk. Even the nicest person you know, somewhere, has that impulse. The nice person you know is probably just really good at suppressing those urges, so good, in fact, that maybe she doesn’t even notice them all that often. (Being super nice is, in its own way, a form of self-satisfaction, but that is a discussion for another day.)

No, just like prejudice against those who are not you (or like you), it’s hard coded into What Makes You Human. Let’s call that the human hardware.

There is something else we have developed, however, to use the human hardware in a way that is conducive to survival. Survival has, for a fairly long time now, has been closely tied to civilization. We need each other to survive.

This is where we find the software that culture spends years uploading to your brain: What Makes You Civilized.

In my product-of-my-society and not-humble-but-self-loathing opinion, this software is buggier than [error 404: Software Metaphor Not Found]. It is not ready for release, and the tens of thousands of versions released so far have gone back and forth on whether or not things are better. The interconnected societies we have now allow us to issue hotfixes a bit faster, but, as ever, results may vary.

I guess I don’t have a coherent thought nor a cogent point. I’m thinking about all of this because I just finished reading THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green.

The book wonders what point a person can have when the majority of impact she can expect to have is negative. I’m not sure that Green answered the questions he posed. I’m not sure he can, or should have.

The sudden surge in world population means there will be more people trying to be heard on a planet roughly the same size. Everyone wants to matter. Hell, I want to matter, and one of my fears is that I won’t.

I am afraid that, after all my effort, what I have done won’t matter. It is a fear related to that of oblivion.

The sensible, logical clarification is that what I do won’t matter THE WAY I WANT IT TO MATTER. That makes me feel a bit childish, however, so I stick with the pithier phrase: I fear I won’t matter.

But no matter what, i will make a difference. Butterflies in New Hampshire fart hurricanes in New Guinea. What I do can and does have the subtlest influence on at least a hundred different people each day, even if I don’t leave the apartment. It’s a domino effect: if nothing else, I interact with my wife, who goes to her place of business and interacts with dozens, who go out and tell two friends, et cetera. (The other potential, that I don’t interact with Heidi, is itself an influence on the state of affairs. There’s no getting away from it.)

The Butterfly Domino Effect.

It’s kind of a terrifying power, because it’s a lot easier to cause ill than good. But it is your responsibility to try and bring some good into this world. There are enough people handling the bad side of the coin.

Even if you never ‘matter’ the way you want to matter, you might push someone else to matter in an important way. You won’t find out, probably. That’s the price.

No refunds.

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