The title of the LP caught my eye thirty years ago, as I bought “Nothing Matters and What if it Did?” by John Cougar, without having heard a track from the album or even knowing for sure who John Cougar (later he’d reclaim his true last name of Mellencamp) was. The album is a classic — the music is timeless and fun, even thirty years after it’s September 1980 release. However, I was thinking about it in more philosophical terms – at a fundamental level, I think we take things far too seriously (myself, obviously, included).
Consider: we will forget almost every event of today or this week, no matter how important. We will remember those few major events — the deaths of loved ones or some kind of tragedy like a flood or fire — but most will fade out of mind. Moreover, this life is short, and at some point not too long from now we’ll all be forgotten, and of course eventually the sun will go nova, the earth will be destroyed, and who knows what the state of humankind will be by that point. Our days will be the ancient pre-history of humanity, when we were still barbaric and tied to the planet.
Now, most people smile at that, but don’t take it seriously. Yet if we do…I think it helps get a little perspective. Each day is part of a playing out of history, and every person has tragedies and dramas in life. Every person passes away sooner or later, everything changes, passes, and moves on. At some level, what seems so important to us in our personal lives has minimal importance in the grand scheme of things.
Yet, of course, it does matter. But what matters? I would submit that most of what gets us upset, angry or agitated in every day life does not matter. I’ll get cute with this. Matter does not matter. I’m not even sure if the material is real. What matters, and what seems real to me, are the emotions and ideas people have. It would not matter if I died tomorrow, but what would matter is that my children, family and others would be profoundly affected. It doesn’t matter if my house burns down. What matters is how we experience it and think about it.
OK, you might say, but so what? Isn’t that what gets us upset, mad or sad anyway? Perhaps not. Let’s say my son is playing a game and hurls a hard ball towards the flat screen TV, destroying the screen and causing a considerable amount of financial loss (assuming we replace it). Note: this did not really happen, so what follows is a thought experiment. If the material matters, I get angry with my son, perhaps scream at him because of how serious the damage is, send him to his room, and tell him he’ll have to help pay for a replacement — he needs to learn respect for property and to think about the consequences of his actions. If matter is what matters most, I’ll ignore the obvious anger and shock this would cause him, especially as he was thinking he was just having fun. I’ll instead fixate on the television, be mad at my boy’s carelessness, and dismiss his crying as “well, he should cry, look at what he did.” I might even take it as a personal affront if I identify too much with the material I own — he hurt me by destroying my TV, that shows no respect for his dad!
But if the material is not what matters, then my first reaction might be “oh my God, the TV,” but then I’d look over and likely see him shocked and scared about getting in trouble. I’d realize that the TV does not matter, my son does. I’d figure out how to handle this in a way that doesn’t create emotional turmoil. I’d quickly dismiss the damage to the TV — it’s done, we’ll have to figure out what to do, but it doesn’t matter. Instead, I’d need to focus on how to handle the lessons my son needs to learn. I’d probably say “What just happened?” He’d likely be crying and saying “I didn’t mean it.”
I’d stay stern sounding, get him to realize the cost and consequences for all of us of having the TV broken out of carelessness, and ask him what should be done. He’d probably think up some punishments or cutbacks, and because I didn’t respond with anger, he’d apologize profusely. At that point we’d both have to pick up the mess, talking about how he needs to learn from this. He’d no doubt feel bad, so we’d maybe go get some gelato, and decide how we’re going to break the news to the rest of the family! I could only behave this way if the television did not truly matter to me — it’s a material object that can be replaced or lived without. My son and his experiences matter far more!
In other words, if we focus on people rather than material objects, we won’t let ourselves get thrown off course by thinking of material damage, inconveniences and what we lack. The focus will be on the people in our lives, recognizing everyone makes mistakes and has to learn. The question will be less about punishment (I don’t really think punishment is appropriate if an act is not volitional) and more about learning and how to deal with the consequences (cleaning and contributing to buying something new is a consequence, not a punishment).
In fact, if we don’t make matter the focus and instead focus on people, then angry reactions to family and friends will start to disappear (not that I think we can really do this — I’m thinking in terms of the ideal — we fallible humans will always have moments of weakness).
The material does matter of course, but only in the sense that it is the backdrop for our shared personal experiences. As such, we’re best not fixating on it. When another person dies, though, that’s a reminder that even our material existence has, at base, a lack of real importance. We all die, and when we do the tragedy is not death, it’s the loss of someone with whom we shared experiences, thoughts and emotions. Such loses are an inevitable cost of living in the world in which we find ourselves. We share experiences with others for only a finite time anyway, be it 50 years or five days.
I’m also not diminishing the horror of child soldiers, rape as a weapon, slavery and other human sufferings — it is the human emotions and experiences that matter, these things are horrific because of their painful nature to those who experience it. We should work hard to change things, but instead of focusing on others with anger, the key is to fix the problems. Retribution or conceptions of justice which focus on punishment likely exacerbate the problem rather than solve it. I’d argue it’s an error if the material is taken so seriously that instead of wanting others to change their behavior we want to make them suffer as they have made others suffer. To me it’s more important they recognize they’ve been wrong and change their way of acting.
So “No thing” matters, but “Every one” matters!