Do the things you do matter?

Vance MacEwen

A monkey staring at its reflection in a compact mirror it's holding
Vance MacEwen, Pai, Thailand, 2014

July 30, 2019

The only valuable things you will do in life are in selfless service of others.

The only valuable things you will do in life are in selfless service of others.

The importance of living selflessly, detached from the trappings of material wealth, has been known to the wisest among us for thousands of years. It is ancient wisdom that can be found, phrased in a variety of ways, in all major religions and countless philosophies.

I just finished reading the Bhagavad Gita. That Hindu scripture reminded me a lot of Buddhist texts, which offer advice echoed by the Stoics, whose words evoke for me the Dao De Jing, which makes me think of the Holy Bible, which parallels in many ways the Quran. Humans have had many beautiful ideas throughout history, and there do seem to be some consistent threads.

Every major religion carries a message of peace and love. Each faith tradition features prophets, sages, or martyrs who expressed their love through selfless action. We are all taught a universal truth with love at its core. To reach mutual understanding, it is not learning but rather unlearning that will bring us together.

Peel away the crusted layers of judgment, rules, and traditions that shellac the lessons our parents and guardians and communities taught us. You will find simple, consistent messages: Be kind. Don’t kill people or steal their stuff. Live with love in your heart.

Not all philosophies and religious tenets are alike. We add messy details on top. The mechanics of morality are mysterious. Enforcing morality is an even more tangled endeavor. Law is one of the greatest human inventions after language, and we still have a long way to go to master it.

Now back to you. Your value, every last iota of it, is determined by what you can do for others. Are you a good parent? A good employee? A valued member of your community? If you are, then you are because of the things do you for your children, for your company, and for your friends and neighbors.

Allow me to add one layer of complexity to this concept of your value being determined by what you can do for others. Have you ever heard of “Present Value of Future Cash Flows”? PV, for short. It’s a finance term for the idea that things that will generate value in the future are valuable now. It’s why venture capitalists invest in startups that haven’t made any profits yet. It’s also why people donate money for scholarships to send kids to school — kids literally are our future. And it’s why anybody does anything for free, ever: promise of reward, whether financial, spiritual, or otherwise.

You can be selfish in this world only if you provide value to other people. Successful selfish people provide lots of value for other people. They create jobs. They provide kickbacks. They lobby for interests. They provide protection. Even the most violent cartel bosses, the most corrupt politicians, the most shortsighted businessmen, and the most merciless lawyers are providing value to somebody to maintain their positions.

Unsuccessful selfish people are only unsuccessful because they take without offering anything in return. That’s why petty criminals go to jail for robbing convenient stores while rich and powerful criminals are free to rob entire countries. The rich and powerful criminals are providing value to other rich and powerful people, and those other people shield them from the consequences of our species’ byzantine legal systems.

Clearly, it is possible to be both selfish and valuable. Why, then, did I say that the only valuable things you will do in life are in selfless service of others? Because whatever you do with selfish intent serves only the ego, and the ego isn’t real. The ego literally does not matter — as in matter, the building block of the universe. The ego is an illusion. It is a construct in your mind that makes sure you keep your mortal body alive.

Food. Water. Shelter. And probably procreation. These are the things your fleshy body craves. You spend so much time in your fleshy body, you think it is you. You cannot imagine being something other than your body. So you serve your body ever tastier food, pricier water, and bigger shelter. You work hard to make money to buy products and services that dazzle and delight your senses. Your senses dull the more you throw at them. Your past accomplishments start to seem trite in comparison to your growing desires. Your past self was so happy to get a snack during recess. Have you noticed your threshold for happiness getting higher?

If you want to be satisfied through your senses, you might as well be trying to empty the ocean. First you use a spoon, then a bucket, then a very sophisticated and expensive array of complex machinery. You might be pumping millions of gallons of water a day by the end of your life, but the ocean will remain. You may get foreign cars, facial injections, and fodder for your Instagram. What you never get is enough.

I am leaning on the practical wisdom offered in those ancient bodies of knowledge I mentioned at the start. You may be a reader or even a practitioner of one or more of them. To learn from them, it does not matter if you agree with all their premises. It does not matter if you believe in souls or an afterlife or reincarnation. Spiritual beliefs depend on your personal faith.

The crux of the issue with selfishness is that your ego is an artificial device that helps ensure the survival of you and your genes. It exists by fiat, like modern currencies. If the whole world decided that the dollar were worthless tomorrow, it would in fact be worthless. Similarly, our egos only grow when we feed them. Your ego only holds the weight you give it.

All of your sensory experiences take place in your subjective reality and nobody else’s. All the pleasure and pain in your life is confined to your personal experience. You can use language to try and share your experiences, but you can never put the bitter defeat you tasted into someone else’s mouth or paint the warm palette of a sunrise you witnessed into another’s eyes without creating a new and wholly separate experience. What you see, taste, hear, and feel are your memories and yours alone. You may leave a legacy behind, but your ego and memories will all depart when you do.

Whatever you do selfishly cannot matter outside of a narrow frame that only exists inside your head. The experiential rewards of your selfish actions are here for a moment, held in your memory for a while, and erased thereafter. The only things you do that have any value are done in service to others. You are here for a tiny blip in the unfathomable expanse of time. The way you matter is by using your life to create joy and reduce suffering for others.

People search for the meaning of life as if it can be found outside somewhere, hidden in an overgrown temple behind a series of devious puzzle chambers. The sages tell you with a wink and a smile that it was inside you all along.

A forked dirt trail in a rich green forest

← Back to our blog posts