In light of Thanksgiving, I know it’s expected that I use this space to ruminate on thankfulness and what I’m thankful for. Therefore, I would like to express my gratitude for all of the important people in this town. There are a lot of important people—I know, because they’ve told me so.
Officially, importance is defined as being “of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.” Referencing a specific person, importance can mean “having high rank or status.” Similar words include powerful, influential or well-connected. What is lacking in these textbook definitions? An indication of how something or someone receives this designation. The kids call it clout. Old people shout, “Who do you think you are?” And all the rest of us are jolly and settled in whatever our own ideas about importance are, certain that we’re all on the same page about what—who—is important and what isn’t.
I like rules. I like guidelines. I love manifestos. And I think here, this matter of importance, is a good example of why such things come in handy. We can’t just go around each individually assuming that our idea of importance aligns with everyone else’s. The problem then becomes self-importance, which is “an exaggerated sense of one’s own value or importance.” I’m sorry, you simply can’t declare your own power, influence or connectedness.
For example, I know of a man who harasses an employee at a local restaurant. Though he often shows up to the place, he rarely orders the same thing. And when the waitstaff doesn’t know what to cook in response to “the usual” or when they have to clarify whether or not he’d like a coffee or a hot tea with his meal, he is angry, often vocally so. “Why, don’t you know who I am?” his mannerisms suggest.
A friend of mine was recently berated by a boss. She is more educated than he is, but in a lesser position at the office. She told me, after the incident, what struck her wasn’t whether or not he was wrong, it was the demeanor—his expression. The purpose of his lectures were less about collaboration and a good end result and more about condescension. In that office, whether or not he is important, he is self-important.
How many times have you been accosted over politics this month? I use that word quite literally as I have heard of local residents actually receiving threatening letters, with whispers of planned property damage, in response to whatever messaging they’ve chosen to display in their front yards. Like any presidential election, with this one, there were issues at stake, and whatever side you’re on, you’ve certainly decided that what is important to you ought to be important to everyone. Now, it’s all said and done (though, as I’m writing this, I don’t actually yet know the outcome) and I wonder, now that it’s over, is it all still as important to you? Or can you go back to that relationship and carry on with no yard signs to draw the lines between you?
I’d like to submit a little logic, if you’re willing to consider. Should you go down the path of self-importance, should you make assumptions about your own power and influence, your great deeds and accomplishments, the number of people you know and what it means to know them—when you draw conclusions about yourself, conclusions like that, they subtract from your real importance. The instant you start telling someone why you’re right or why you’re fabulous, you’ve negated the whole argument by reducing it to a single point of view. You’ve decided the thing’s significance, your own significance; but if it isn’t accepted as significant or profound or successful by the whole, then by definition, it isn’t actually important at all.
Perhaps the real tragedy occurs in where we want to place importance—ourselves. It’s only when we’re considering ourselves that this values system of collective regard even matters. For example, my books are very important to me. I check every day to make sure they’re lined up straight on my bookshelves, in the most aesthetically pleasing color order. It doesn’t matter to me that no one else in my family thinks to do this or that they think I’m crazy. It’s important to me. I have assigned, and therefore measured, how this process—the overall effect—adds up in significance and value. To me, it is profound.
I suppose, if you really want to, you can do this for yourself. You can spend great lengths of time staring in the mirror reflecting on your greatness. You can write books and poems and sonnets to yourself. You can stride around town, a pompous step and a smug smile for reasons only known to you. I wonder though, will it still matter to you if no one else finds you important?
I bet that, as important as my books are to me, regardless of your having applied the same level of care to your own ego, it’s not you that is important to you. It’s what others think. So, if you really want something to be thankful for this month, appreciate the silence of others. Their good graces are what you crave, but it is by grace they’ve kept their opinions to themselves.