Dear Alma: Do You Have to Achieve an Act of Greatness for Your Life to Matter?

After the movie The Social Network came out, I saw a post on the internet written by a teenager who said he had seen the movie and already knew he would never achieve Mark Zuckerberg’s level of greatness. The spirit of his post was, “I’ll never be that great, so what is the point of life?”

I pondered his question for seven years, and now I have finished thinking about it. This letter is for you, in case you ever ask the same question and I’m not around to give you my answer.

I have no platitudes to offer. Instead, I have a few short thought experiments that could make you uncomfortable, and a lot of questions. I hope that your mind dwells on these questions over the next couple of days. With any luck, they will lead you to an answer.

First Thought Experiment

What if I rephrased the question like this:

Unless you achieve greatness, your life will be meaningless.

Did you get the sense that the statement was already present in your mind, and I only reminded you of it? If you look closely at the idea, can you tell where it came from? Was there one source or many?

Imagine for a moment that the statement is true. You’re an old woman looking back at her life. You did many things, but you didn’t achieve true greatness.

How did that feel? If it didn’t bother you at all, then my work is already done. Otherwise, we are going to examine very closely the suffering that this idea can cause.

Nothingness, the Eternal Soul, and Reincarnation

You may believe that after death, there is nothingness, or that your soul is eternal, you’ll be resurrected, reincarnated, or any number of things. I won’t disagree with any of those beliefs in this letter.

When Does Death Begin?

Instead of talking about when life ends, I want you to consider when death begins. I know, I know. Death?! But let’s go there for a moment.

Second Thought Experiment

As you read this, is it closer to the time you woke up today, or the time you’ll go to sleep? If it’s closer to the time you woke up, are you the same person today as the person who went to sleep? Is today the same day as yesterday? (You’re five years old now and ask me this all the time; it’s a valid question.)

If the time is closer to when you’ll go to sleep, will the person who wakes up tomorrow be the same as the one who goes to sleep? More silly questions, you’re probably thinking. But again, tomorrow we’ll say that the day is different, right? So are you the same person, or different? Could both statements be true? What is the difference between a day and a person’s life?

188 Deaths

What would it even mean if you were a different person after you woke up? Does that mean someone else died the night before? If that’s the case, how many times did you die already? This is just for fun; clearly you aren’t dead if you’re reading this. But let’s continue the experiment. If you did die all those times, how many is it exactly? So far just this year, for me, it would be, what, 188 deaths, give or take a few?

Of course, we both know that going to sleep isn’t the same as the death of the body, and I won’t insult your intelligence by claiming that they are alike. But let’s continue the experiment. Aside from the complexity of your brain, what are the similarities and differences between the moment your body was born from your mother’s womb and the moment you gained consciousness today?

Oops! I said I would talk about death, and then I meandered back to birth. “Back” to birth doesn’t sound right, does it?

How Long is a Life?

You may already be familiar with these questions. If you aren’t yet, they may sound absurd.

Odd as the questions are, the central conflict in the pro-life/pro-choice debate is the definition of exactly when life begins. Does it begin at the moment of conception, or later? Does it begin even earlier, before conception?

This essay is not about that debate and we won’t address it, but clearly, our ideas about the moment that life begins – and thus about the duration of life – are important enough to warrant decades of entrenched conflict. These are serious questions!

Third Thought Experiment

Given that these silly questions are actually very serious, let’s keep experimenting with them.

What if, instead of life beginning at the moment of conception or sometime later, it began when you woke up today? Really let that possibility sink into your imagination.

Imagine that you came into existence when you woke up this morning and you’ll change into a different being after you go sleep. In other words, you have around twelve hours to make your life meaningful. Damn, not a lot of time! What do you do, right?

Now, what if you went even further: what if it was only an hour? How would you make an hour-long life meaningful?

These questions are worth setting some time aside to think about deeply. However, you may want to wait until we’re done with the other thought experiments because we’re about to think bigger.

What Makes a Life?

So far, we’ve drawn a box around your life and imagined different numbers. When we started, your life-span was probably seventy years; then it was 24 hours, and finally a single hour. But in all these cases, regardless of the length of time, what makes up the substance of the life that you control?

This time I want to push an answer on you: Your actions. I hope we can agree that your actions are what you control in life, and that certain types of actions make up what is generally referred to as “greatness.” Great people have done great things; it appears that they’ve taken certain actions and achieved results.

Here are examples of what most people would probably call “greatness”:

  • The winner of a gold medal at the Olympics, or a career athlete who wins ten Olympic gold medals
  • The founder of a very successful company, or a serial entrepreneur who creates many successful companies
  • The author of a well-received and long-remembered novel, or a novelist who writes many such novels

You get the idea, right? Some people are great because of a single event, while others experience more than one such event. To someone who views achieving greatness as the point of life, looking into another’s life from the outside, even a single such event may seem like it has made the person’s life meaningful. Logically, more of these events should equal more greatness, and thus more meaning.

We are truly in the thick of it now. Let’s continue from the basis that a life is made of actions.

Final Thought Experiment

Consider two scenarios:

  • You are in the audience when a child gives a bad cello performance. Other than her parents, few people make positive comments, and then she leaves the stage. You empathize with the child, so you approach her afterward and give honest praise about her hard work. She thanks you, and you promptly forget about the episode. The girl continues practicing. She remembers that day as her first public embarrassment; she ruminates about it often. With the pain, though, she always remembers you. In fact, she remembers your kind words a total of seven hundred times in her life, and each time pushes her to practice harder. Later, she joins an ensemble that earns some renown. Many thousands of people are consoled by this ensemble’s music while it stays together, and the recordings continue to reach people for decades afterward.

  • Two candidates run for a political office. One supports better funding of mental health care services. You vote for him. The vote is close; a handful of people decide the election for the man you chose. Soon after the election, you move to another country and never return to your first home. While the politician is in office, he tries to back away from his campaign promises, but after pressure from a coalition of mental health advocates and his wife, a devout Catholic, he begins working on legislation that would revamp the mental health care system. The legislation passes. Hundreds of thousands of people see a lasting increase in quality of life, happiness, and meaning as a result; some that would have died without the plan live instead.

How many actors were involved in producing the great things done in these examples? Whose lives were made meaningful (objectively, not subjectively) as a result of achieving greatness through these actions? Can a human being ever know the answer to these questions?

Conclusion: Life in a Single Second

This letter started by examining the anxiety a young person felt after concluding that the greatness of someone else’s life was probably not possible within his own. That is, within the span of his life and attributed to him.

I asked some questions about how long a life might last and what constitutes a life in spans of time like seventy years or 24 hours. Then I gave two examples of small-seeming actions that had far-reaching consequences.

Now I will conclude by narrowing the scope even more, to a single second.

“A single second changed her life forever” is a phrase that is burned into my brain, probably by dozens of movie trailers. When you think of what’s possible within a second, that’s kind of what jumps to mind, right? In a single second, you dramatically save a child about to be hit by a bus. In a single second, you defuse the bomb that was about to kill forty hostages. We can just keep cranking up the drama.

But in real life, how often do you perceive anything actually changing in a single second? My thoughts change, but my life? Not so much.

And yet, a second is just long enough to act. To make a decision. To speak. Long enough for a glance, for a genuine smile, for a kind touch, for a piercing scream.

Each of these actions, despite taking only a second, is a conversion of energy in your body into something else. The energy does not disappear; instead, it begins to travel. It will take another form, it will produce an effect. Then that motion will continue, and the effect will become the cause of another effect. In every moment, with every action you take, this energy is blooming from you, beginning its individual journey, triggering other movements and beginnings, with rapidly incomprehensible complexity.

If you were to draw a line from someone’s birth until their death and call it that person’s life, and place dots for major events, and consider that line the substance of the person’s life, then the lack of a big dot signifying a great action would be sad indeed. It would be natural to worry about this line while it’s being drawn, to question if the dots will be big enough.

But is your life really just a straight line with a few dots? Shouldn’t there be a dot for every second? For a seventy-year-old, that’s over two billion dots. And for each dot, we’d have to zoom in and start a parallel line. This is the line for the energy that you put into motion in one second on the original line. Then we should follow that line to see what kind of greatness it might produce. Unfortunately for us, the new line will extend beyond the end of the first line, and that’s just one of the two billion dots, so this map is going to get very large. How large do you think it might get, exactly?

When you can tell me how large that map might be, maybe you will have an answer to the question, “do you have to achieve an act of greatness for your life to matter?”