Part One of the Insignificance Trilogy
Expectation and entitlement are cancers to insight and happiness. So why do we think we deserve so much? How have activists promulgated the perception that we are all significant in order to exploit vulnerable individuals? Why is The Risk-Monger writing three blogs on the virtue of insignificance?
I was taking a break from a busy, crowded conference in Brussels, enjoying my coffee in a quiet foyer. Nearby, a Commission official had just wrapped up a discussion with two evidently self-important people (I enjoyed observing how their body language attempted to camouflage their insecurities). The EU official kindly turned to me and asked if I was waiting to speak to him.
“Not particularly” I replied.
“Who are you?” he asked with a puzzled tone.
“I’m insignificant!” I replied blandly. My coffee finished and my moment of tranquility dissipated, I wandered off.
In a town like Brussels where importance exudes from everyone’s timesheet, there is not enough reflective honesty on the insignificance of our activities amid all of the self-absorption. In the policy scene, Brussels consultants are paid to have opinions, regulators are contractually obliged to listen and every encounter involves a judgement as to whether the other is worthy of one’s precious time. When will these pantomime actors wake up to the conclusion that most of what they do does not matter as much as they have convinced themselves?
Admittedly, in publishing this, I will cease to have any friends left in this town. Worse, this is the first of a three-part blog series: The Insignificance Trilogy.
In this quest to be significant, in this need to be heard, in this striving to use every moment to win on some obscure issue (glyphosate is just an herbicide for heaven’s sake!), I see little more than sadness and emptiness emanating from every PowerPoint click. I got up and walked away from this “Me-Important” world in 2006 (I was suffering what has since been called “REACH burnout”) and embraced the realisation of how insignificant I had become in the best way possible (by devoting my time to raising three self-absorbed individuals at home).
If I lower my expectations (accept that I am not significant), the risk of disappointment diminishes. Happiness is often found in the simple joys and not the great achievements. I can accept that I am insignificant and embrace the value in such a realisation.
Expectation: The Antithesis of Insignificance
Expectation is the root of all disappointment (and countless other character flaws that I have probably wisely chosen not to list). The less we come to expect (the more we come to terms with our insignificance), the better off we will be. We have in our human nature, however, high expectations of ourselves, high expectations from others and high expectations from events.
Self-expectation. For most, our lives are guided by hopes and dreams that somehow get converted into expectations we place upon ourselves. When I expect to attain something (career recognition, personal goals, wealth or success…), it places a heavy burden on my personal identity. That dreaded mid-life crisis is self-inflicted by the over-expectation of youthful arrogance. Upon graduation, I had a plan, very few Plan Bs and a whole heap of ambition that at the age of 55 now looks quite comical. The moment I expect to attain some objective, I am setting myself up for more than disappointment, but also a refusal to accept the reality (often manifesting itself in a form of outrage or depression). The “I am significant” ego is an expert in blaming others for his own failure.
Expectation from others. Someone with a high opinion of himself (I feel quite comfortable retaining the masculine gender in this context) will come to expect certain things from others (recognition, obedience, submission …). This sense of entitlement seems to come as second nature for most millennials (and I struggle with such individuals in my lecture hall on a daily basis). Now what happens when this self-love goes unrequited? When others do not treat us with the respect we expect, we should not be surprised to see confrontation. When the self-absorbed demand validation from others, outrage lies just below the surface, waiting for the first whiff of non-fulfilment. I often look at colleagues (worse authors) who put Dr. or PhD into their email signatures with a certain resignation. I grin and bear activists in lobbying debates who explain away, attack or denigrate those who disagree with them. Engaging with them usually ends badly.
Expectation from events. When people form together into social media driven tribes (closed off from others who may think differently), they would find it natural to expect some event to happen. As this expectation cements itself in the shared confirmations of the tribe, the potential for disappointment exploding into outrage becomes uncontainable. It has been a year since Donald Trump entered the White House and still, Hillary Clinton’s supporters cannot accept how things are. Mature, responsible individuals, driven by festering outrage, have become quite unprofessional and easily provoked. Likewise, in Brussels, a few months after the EU decision to renew the glyphosate authorisation, the self-important campaigners, lawyers and activists are feeding on an unhealthy level of outrage. They are looking and sounding ridiculous as they struggle to overturn a decision they did not expect and hence could not accept. Seriously now, did the president of the French Republic not have anything better to do that get himself entangled in a simple EU Comitology process over an herbicide?
Gifts Bestowed upon the Gifted
Make no mistake – recognising my insignificance is not self-loathing, nor is it defeatist, humiliation or insecurity. I can be very proud of my achievements and happy to share them with others, but as gifts rather than rewards. Those who are naturally talented and successful, we call “gifted” and they earn our respect. Those who demand our respect because they think highly of themselves and feel entitled to such recognition, we call “assholes” (sorry for my language, but I simply cannot find another word to describe them). In another blog, I will have to consider how to deal with the gifted asshole, but I think they are quite rare.
The insignificant one does not take him or herself too seriously (and often does not take the self-absorbed seriously either). I created this offensive Risk-Monger persona eight years ago because it was getting hard to take anyone in Brussels seriously, and frankly, it has only become worse. It is hard to be disappointed when your expectations are tempered by insignificance. Rather, it may be easier to find happiness (or at least contentment) when one lowers expectations and is certainly not guided only by self-imposed demands to achieve them.
A person like the Risk-Monger, recognising his insignificance, rarely expects anything from anyone so is likewise rarely disappointed (or offended when the entitled and self-absorbed insult him). He has dreams and objectives but they are not written in stone. Every day is a gift, every compliment or act of kindness toward him a surprise, and every event, good or bad, is celebrated as part of the way things, at the moment, are.
Winning (achieving what you expected) is not everything and recognising the need sometimes to compromise should not be considered as failure. The third part of the Insignificance Trilogy looks at how those who think they are significant seem incapable of dialogue. A person who recognises that the world does not revolve around him may actually see better how the world revolves than the self-absorbed and entitled.
Enter the Leader
Trying to change the order of things, many times, requires someone who is driven and uncompromising. Great entrepreneurs do not give up in the face of repeated failures or when society does not at first embrace their vision and innovations. Charismatic leaders who stand up to injustice have reshaped political landscapes. Talented athletes or artists inspire others with their determination and commitment. In such cases, not giving up (being uncompromising) is a virtue they express and we aspire to. Our perceptions may mask reality, but with these leaders, we do not see their self-importance or self-absorption – we see sacrifice, vision and achievement.
To sacrifice oneself is to recognise there are things greater than ourselves – that we are insignificant. The authority of the institution should command our respect not the entitled little individual who seeks personal attainment. In bygone days, when people went to church, there was this recognition of something transcending our petty little self-absorbed lives (humility was once a virtue) – something that put us in our place. We still find such instances: a parent staying up all night tending to a sick child; a random act of kindness; a professional at the end of a career choosing to lead not out of self-interest or need to dominate…
Leadership should be bestowed by the institution or authority on individuals. Today, however, with declining trust in institutions, the loss of authority and the demise of the expert, we are taught to be inspired by another breed of “leader” – the guru.
The Activist Guru
Some confuse true leaders with activists. Indeed an activist also wants to change the world, upset the status quo and inspire others to pursue a better world. But unlike true leaders, the activist has some self-interest, personal involvement and exhibits a zealot-like dogmatism that is as uncompromising as it is unflattering. The activists with whom I have come in contact are not leaders but opportunists. Their narrow idealism carries the expectation of victory and their drive is locked in a form of dogmatic fundamentalism. An activist guru leads a cult, not a nation, expects from others, and is emboldened to change what they perceive as insignificance (which is identified as weakness)?
Such zealots have the determination not of a leader but of a bully. Domination and winning are the only measurements of achievement. A guru like Vandana Shiva is moved by adulation, first-class tickets and $40,000 speaking fees. If Shiva’s message does not resonate, if the university halls have empty seats, she will simply change her message. A “doctor” like Mercola will raise health issues insofar as he can sell more supplements or his latest diet-plan books. The Food Babe, Vani Hari, just wants to be liked. And the Avocado? OK, you’ve got me there! I can’t get into his brain. What these zealot gurus all share is the inability to listen and the expectation of being listened to.
Ask any activist how they consider themselves. I doubt you would hear the term “insignificant”.
So when The Risk-Monger proudly claims: “I’m insignificant!”, it means I’m not buying what our present cabal of manipulative gurus are selling. They’ll tell me I matter so long as I listen to them, buy their products and agree with their narrow green ethos. But I don’t take these activists seriously, I don’t fall for their self-importance and I don’t give them the unmerited respect they feel entitled to.
And neither should you. Let’s celebrate together the freedom found in being insignificant.
The next blog in the Insignificance Trilogy will look at how zealots throughout history, under the pretence of their “significance”, have led populist – cultist revolutions that have ultimately failed due to their hubris. As the self-absorbed of the green activist movement get to the point of assuming leadership roles in policy, maybe we need to resurrect the virtue of insignificance.