amychan
Credit: Julia Schorr

All semester long, I’ve been grappling with this question: “Will I live a significant life?”

This is, undoubtedly, a huge question. This may or may not even be the Question. And it is the Question that I have brooded over, not only my last year of college, when, for the first time, I can see my story’s finishing line, but all my life. Nevertheless, like most people when they are young, the Question was less a question and more a statement. 

“Being significant doesn’t mean that you have to matter to everyone, or that you have to matter forever, or even that you have to matter to the point that someone knows your name. ”

“Well, of course I am going to live a significant life,” we all tell ourselves. The only uncertainty is how we are going to do it. 

For some, we envisage significance in giving ourselves to others. For some, we envisage significance in creation. And for some, we envisage significance in perpetuity — can we make or do something that lasts beyond our personal timeline?

It is the combination of these last two versions of significance that has always plagued me, that plagues most of my generation. To live significantly means to live divinely, to become the center of our own worlds, to make, shape, destroy the universe in our own image, until finally, reality resembles our imagination. Except, reality exists outside our power, and what happens when we cannot play God?

I was talking with a friend last weekend, another literary type like me. We are both in the same boat: jobless with no impending resolution. We were grappling, grappling, grappling with the Question, when she said, “I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that my life may never have significance.” And though I related to her deeply, though just that weekend, I had cried all day until my head throbbed, worrying over the same thing, I wanted to tell her that she was wrong.

We often forget that very first version of significance I mentioned, the version our mothers teach us before school ever tells us to create, before society tells us to live forever. Help others. It’s an almost infantile command, but it’s one that holds the most water in today’s day and age, when maybe 5 percent of people will realize significance the way the rest of us have mistakenly imagined.

“'Well, of course I am going to live a significant life,' we all tell ourselves. The only uncertainty is how we are going to do it.”

Being significant doesn’t mean that you have to matter to everyone, or that you have to matter forever, or even that you have to matter to the point that someone knows your name. You simply have to matter — to have done one action which truly helped or made a difference at one point in time — to one person. 

Let me spoil “Middlemarch” for you by saying that it’s about what people do when expectations exceed reality, when ambition and dreaming remain unfulfilled — basically, how to keep going when the going gets tough. Eliot ends the story, explaining that the reason “things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 

The answer to the question, “Will I live a significant life?” is and will always be “Yes.” Because whether you assist lots of people, whether everyone knows your name, whether or not you ever do a deed greater than helping that one old lady cross the street that one time — you have done and probably will do at least one noteworthy thing, even if it is only for your parents. 

Noteworthiness is not synonymous with fame, nor even with ambition — although these three are often intertwined. It is important to remember that this first version of significance — helping others — is the truest, most achievable version of significance an ordinary person can grasp on an ordinary day. 

AMY CHAN is a College senior from Augusta, Ga., studying classics. Her email address is chanamy@sas.upenn.edu.

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