I hate the word “important.” It’s a vague word, kind of like “soon.” What do you mean soon, in seconds, hours, days, years, millennia? What do you mean important, to you, to us, to the city, the country, the world? The word can be taken in degrees, a little important, somewhat, critically, absolutely. . . Too frequently, the word is used to indicate desires, hopes, wishes, rather than something that really matters.
We humans are curious animals exhibiting peculiar behaviors. We have taken over the world. We live on every part of its solid surface, except Antartica, and even there we have made our mark. We make great efforts to dominate nature, and reverse her. We have amassed enormous stores of knowledge and widespread means for communicating that knowledge with each other. Still, with all our aptitude, we have yet to figure out what is important.
Now, you may be thinking, everyone knows what’s important, at least for oneself. But collectively that individual assurance of knowing vanishes. As a species, we’re not Homo Sapiens, we are Homo Stupidiens.
It takes many forms. Look, for instance, at the efforts we make with food. The time we spend cooking, learning to cook, refining recipes, searching out our favorite restaurants, finding the best this and the top that. Claiming that female and male lobsters taste different, one sex better than the other, the same with eggplant and watermelon. (FYI: Fruits don’t have a sex, and lobsters all taste the same.) Some people spend more on a bottle of wine than on all the dishes of food served during an entire dining experience. In some cases, they spend more than most people earn in a month. For what? Tasty food, fine sauces, pretty presentation, old wine? None of that improves the nutritional value of the food. None of that really matters for survival. Why do we put so much effort into extravagances and heap so much importance on trivialities? Why spend hundreds on a single meal, thousands on a bottle of wine which provide only minutes of enjoyment, and in the end, get flushed away the next day?
Look at fashion, home furnishings, art, literature, theater, sports, music. These things we place high value on, devote hours towards, and invest loads of resources into. Some might fulfill basic needs, but in the case of most of them, entertainment, spectator sports, art and music, they fill no needs, none. What are we thinking?
Experts talk about important events, important works, important people. We’re willing to compensate certain people millions for their contributions to sport teams, films, performances, while hundreds of other people indispensable for the production of these spectacles get only fractions of a share. Who are really important? Who is dependent on whom? We praise people for their direction of a company and believe they deserve millions or billions for what they do because no one else on the face of this planet has what it takes to do the same, or better, as if they’ve done it all by themselves on their own without a single other person’s help. Really?
We persist in the fable of the savior. Not only the mythological savior, but the folklore savior, the MVP savior, the CEO savior, the techno savior, the one and only person who can turn the world around. Savior after savior, name one who has saved the world. Yet, we still pour ourselves into these imaginary heroes. We follow follow without a thought of, why are we following?
We are very good at losing perspective, too. Hugely exaggerating one danger, while ignoring greater dangers. The loss of perspective happens by concentrating too much attention on the latest, newest, most novel hot thingy. It’s done by using statistics focussed on one point of view without comparing or contrasting those numbers with how they relate to a wider view. It’s done by presenting selected facts that are incomplete and out of context. It’s done by base-rate neglect. It’s done with repetition. It’s done by talking about one subject incessantly to distract us from more pressing issues.
We’re lazy thinkers, too. We want everything to be handed to us in neat little packages—soundbites, slogans, catch phrases—simple stuff, easy to pick up, easy to remember, easy to pass on. Why bother with checking facts? It’s too hard. Thinking takes time. Thinking takes effort. Questioning the validity of surprising claims and scary stories means challenging the source, usually authority. Challenging authority takes not merely time and effort, but audacity. One risks going against the grain, standing out from the crowd, exposing oneself to being different from the pack, criticism. It’s much easier to blissfully go with the flow, take orders from someone else, and suppress your own thought.
And laziness of thought goes deep.
It seems likely that a person who accepts the idea of common ancestry, for example—solely based on the words of some authority, having no idea what that actually means or where that conclusion comes from—leaves the door open for this belief to be replaced by another coming from a more charismatic authority. In Brazil’s case, this seems like a good description, even for people who have higher educational levels, because 82 percent of respondents with university diplomas believe in the efficacy of alternative medicine, and 73 percent believe that GMOs are harmful. It suggests that “epistemic ignorance”—the ignorance of processes that generate and justify scientific knowledge—remains a blind spot in science education and communication efforts. Believing in Science Is Not Understanding the Science: Brazilian Surveys, by Natalia Pasterak, Carlos Orsi
When we humans figure out what really matters, when we start telling stories of saving ourselves from ourselves, when we learn to value balance, equity, honesty, then we’ll have something important.
But I’ve lost my direction. This isn’t about what’s essential, it’s about what’s important, the things we humans want, need more than merely the basics for survival. Obviously, there’s confusion about the meaning of the word important. There is the important for survival; there is the important for meta-survival. The word does not discriminate.
We need beauty, We need to produce the extraordinary in our lives. We need to create the distinctive, the uncommon. We need more than is necessary. And it’s okay to put extra import on those parts of our lives that are, from a practical standpoint, completely superfluous. These super-necessities distinguish existence from living.
A new understanding of important is possible by distinguishing these two meanings with one succinct question : Is this important for survival, or is this important for making the world a better place to live? Ask that the next time you read the news. Ask that at random in the middle of the day. Ask yourself the next time you think, “This is important. . . “