I Am Irrelevant
What will the people think? What will they remember about me? A common worry, even when we don’t care. Maybe especially so. And if it is a worry, then we have to admit it has at least some importance in our life. I was recently discussing choice and end-of-life dignity. Mid-argument, someone threw on the table “It is not entirely about you, but about the impact of this decision on others around you”! Or course, this was on my radar, but not with that level of acuity. Up to that point, I was clear about my core self, and about the persona I project to the outside world. What this discussion put in stark relief was that there clearly is a fully independent version of “me”, entirely constructed by other people.
So, my impact on others around me is not only the impact of my core self but also — and possibly more so — the impact of what people make me out to be. It seems like a contradiction at first. On the one hand, I only exist through the image of me that is created by people, society, my family, community. This created external self means that I, at the core, am irrelevant. But, on the other hand, as my decisions create ripple effects far beyond my direct control, ultimately, I can only be relevant.
The way I look at it?
I am irrelevant. But what I am to others is relevant.
Julius is not as relevant as Caesar
There exist extremely complete, and complex, philosophical theories around these topics. Freud being one of them. I always found these theories unwieldy in live situations. To make it more actionable, I prefer to use historical examples.
We all know Julius Caesar. But who was Julius?
The factual life of Julius Caesar is well documented. We can trace it, analyse it. There are dates, events, biographies. We have portraits in statues and coins. We can recreate his daily agenda. Because Caesar is relevant, every scrap of details is reverently archived. We know Caesar. Julius? Not so sure. Was Julius self-conscious about his baldness? What was he thinking climbing up the stairs before his assassination? It is quite possible to recreate the frame of his political thoughts, but what did he think of the weather that day? Did his arthritis play up? It is guesswork. An approximation of Julius.
Sure, the persona Julius Caesar is created by the core Julius. But also by how it was translated, seen, understood by his environment. In the case of the one and only true Julius Caesar, we will never know what he would think of his name becoming a palace, a salad or a surgical procedure. Yet, we are sure he would be thrilled that his very name spawned another imperial dynasty, the Czars. We can guess this by comparison to his actual actions — or how we understand them. Why he did what he did? We will forever have to guess. What we do know is that his very name inspired thousands over the next centuries.
In this, Julius is irrelevant. Caesar, on the other hand, is highly relevant to the world.
What is relevant is both less and more than ourselves
So, how do I apply this to my life?
We are used to the difference between the image we have of ourselves and the carefully constructed persona we project to the world. We often perceive this as just a tool to get accepted. Think of the difference between what you think of yourself and the narrative you post on social media. Yet, you want the people to remember the real you, or at least, a version of you that you control. They won’t though. Nobody will. What they will remember is not your carefully constructed persona, nor your core self. What the people will remember is but a constructed person they built themselves of you, within their own mental landscape. That image they have of you is totally independent of you, or your persona. That image that others have of you is your relevance. This means, that the way you see yourself is totally irrelevant.
Let’s take an example.
I often play the devils-advocate to provoke ideas with the impression that it advances the debate with friends. Most people probably remember me as a nay-sayer, though. I see myself as more than this. Which version of me is true? Well, in the memory of my environment, I will probably be forever the nay-sayer. That is my relevance. What I think of myself is irrelevant.
I am essentially irrelevant, but I am relevant to others
I started this post ultimately after musing on how much people really knew me. The person people know me for is often rather strange, if not a totally different person than who I think I really am. Maybe I am simply not conscious about myself. Or maybe it is just that I can’t be the watcher and the watched. Still, my core self is definitely not this external persona. Never 100%. Nor 80%. It is just other. This does not mean that I am not relevant as an individual, but that I may not be relevant for being “me”.
Yet, if I am irrelevant as an individual, does it mean that I do not matter?
My relevance is not my own. My relevance belongs to my environment. This is not a good or bad thing. It just is.
The way I see it, there are 3 ways to decide whether you are relevant. This is being, acting or inspiring.
We give simply by BEING
The relevance of being is measured by physical presence. This is an entirely external creation. You are told that you exist, through physical measures and conventions. You exist within a physical system defined by others. Much of what we think as ourselves is a commonly agreed construct — intellectual, social, cultural as much as physical.
Over time, it seems to me that we confuse acknowledging a being, and the accuracy of this recognition.
Defining, outlining an entity does not require absolute material accuracy. A photo, a film, or tomorrow an holographic recording, gives us the impression that we know a person. For example, it is true that we can recreate dead people (look at the stunning recreation of Tupac live in holograms). Not only their image, but also their speech patterns, their behaviour, the way they move by using holograms and AI. Yet, these are just different tools. Formerly, we had paintings. With no technological alternative, Henry the VIIIth thought that dispatching Holbein for a portrait of Anne de Cleves was good enough for him to choose his next bride.
Recording ourselves is an accepted convention, dependent from technologies as much as interpretation of these images. It does allow us to register people around us, but that does not make them any more relevant. There will be always a missing part. I am relevant, but not for who I really am. The real me is totally irrelevant.
Therefore, we are relevant, not for ourselves as such, but for our part in making the environment be. Like a painting, picture, holograms, or independent vector that makes it move, shimmer and breathe. In a very basic way, we know that colours and weather influence our own very personal mood. Simply being part of a given environment, gives everyone’s landscape colours. What we are, is critical in defining the human landscape, from the most immediate surroundings to the total environment. The anthill we call humanity is nothing but the sum of our interactions. We give simply by being.
Somehow people will relate, refer, react to you. Directly or indirectly. Or even ignore you. Even when we have the impression that we are transparent, or a shadow on a wall, we have a relevance. Maybe not as a sentient individual, but at least as a presence in the corner of their eyes. This shadow can only exist because of the “core me”. However irrelevant it is.
Our relevance is not our intrinsic significance, our intrinsic importance, but our direct or indirect impact on our environment. It is created by us being, as much as us acting.
The relevance of our ACTIONS
It could be mainly our actions that make us relevant? Our actions are a physical proof of who we are. A symptom of our personality. However, the controlled impact of our actions are as such irrelevant too.
There is the below classical poem of Shelley that puts it better than any one sentence.
Even when our actions are critical, their relevance depends only on their context, not their importance or significance. This can only fade over time. For example, what would remain of the critical victory of Ramses II over the Hittites at Qadesh if we would not have stumbled on partly obscured hieroglyphs? We are not even sure how the Egyptian language sounded like.
Our actions will be processed as they are recorded, understood, memorialised by others. Hence, while our actions in itself may be remembered, our intentions behind them will not. How long until we vanish into the sands of time?
The actual relevance of our core self is less than we may think.
Less than we may wish.
As well, maybe less than we realise.
How many times did people come up to you to thank you for an act you barely recalled, or even were conscious of? Our acts are critical in their after-effect. We often have the illusion of control. The illusion of creating a “legacy”. Truth be told, we can only have little to no direct control on the actual relevance of our actions. We can only hope to create ripples. As in the butterfly theory, this could very well be a ripple on the other side of the world, we are not aware of at all. It can be in positive or negative ways. Some more durable than others. Possibly over the spans of centuries or millennia, in the far future. Yet it will ultimately merge and fade into an anonymous wave.
If we are irrelevant as individual entities, if our actions are irrelevant, maybe it is the inspiration we thrive to create that makes us relevant?
The picture we paint will go beyond being or acts. It will be inspiration, in positive or negative ways. The values we represent. Possibly, it will be the essence of our actual core values that will endure. If we know them. Yet again, even if we record our values, in writing or in any improved impervious technology, there is no way to be sure that the translation of our values will inspire in the way we intended. After all, we will always be dependent on our audience to amplify our message — with the best or worse of intentions. Our intended inspiration is as irrelevant as our actions, and our being.
Yet, our core selves do trigger waves. We have a critical, even when indirect, role. These waves go further than what we can expect by being ourselves, or controlling our actions. Even if we are conscious of how irrelevant we are on a human scale, we each set waves in motions. In this, to me, the most relevant dimension we bring as individuals is the inspiration we trigger in others. It can be positive, driving towards a goal. Or negative, creating enough of a repulsion to instigate a reaction. By simply being, we are nothing less than walking, talking examples of life, choices, and their price. We create impulse that resonate through our direct environment, and mechanically ripple reach beyond that. We are heralds of values, paragons.
Whether these values are virtues is a totally different question. These values do not have to be virtues.
Take again the Caesar example. We know that he made a choice from which you do not recover. He crossed the Rubicon, and his comment, apocryphal or genuine, was? Yes, you are right. “Alea jacta est”, the die is cast. Few of us remember the exact circumstance of the decision. If that is relevant. Yet we all remember that we may be confronted to red lines that have to be tackled head on, with no turning back once crossed. Caesar inspires us. Julius? Well, we are not even sure he articulated the sentence. Who knows how he really felt about transgressing centuries of political traditions?
For many of us, regardless of the scope of our ambition, we try and matter. Within our family, our social circle, our city, region, … we want to be relevant. Some take social media as a disease, a never-ending loop of revalidation. It is but a symptom. Social media is the perfect stage, giving us the occasion we deeply wish for: importance, significance, relevance. How else to understand the success of so many TikTok “life advice” 10 second short? Or this post?
Onwards and upwards
In absolute terms, it seems that we, as a fully sentient individuals, are only truly relevant to ourselves. Yet, the reach of the ripples we create is potentially universal. So, on the surface of it, whenever we question our relevance, we try and measure the direct impact we have on our environment. This relevance can only be measured by our own individual self. Hence, the answer can only be: none. We are probably the worst placed to measure our own personal relevance. So why try!?
Yet, we do have a measurable impact. Can we really steer it? Can we ensure its consistency with what we aim for? Highly unlikely.
So, as me, I am utterly irrelevant. Yet, me, living in the eyes of others, I am utterly relevant.
My relevance may not be what I think I am, or what I am told I am.
My relevance is in the way others use me as an answer to their questions.