Yesterday I found myself listening to Coheed and Cambria’s excellent album The Afterman: Ascension as I walked from class back to the bus stop. A line in the title track (posted above) struck me in a way I hadn’t noticed despite looping the album countless times since it was released late last year. It simply said, “Your selfishness has robbed you of the man you could have been.” The idea of a self-centered life being ultimately not fulfiling is not a new one, but the idea of willfully stealing the maximum potential of one’s self really ate at me. Is life truly only meaningful if lived with other people? Is the maximum good of life only attainable if you do something for others?
I think, in broad terms, this is true. People always point to humanity as relational as if that means something, but the discourse always seems to come back to what’s “mine”. If I produce something, then it’s mine! If other people want/need it, too bad! I didn’t create it for them! (Not coincidentally, the reason that this line spoke to me is the reason I hate Atlas Shrugged. The idea of taking your ball and going home because other people didn’t create it repulses me.) If humanity were to be truly relational, (which I believe it is) the goal is then not to produce for one’s self but to find ways to work with others to benefit all involved. There’s nothing wrong with ambition. Someone out there has to be motivated to do things with their life, after all. But the point of that shouldn’t be a middle finger to the world as you “make it on your own.” Rather, maybe the point of ambition is to look at the world around us and see what needs improving, and then finding how we can do that together.
John Green, in his recent appearance at Carnegie Hall (Seriously, watch that video. There’s a Mountain Goats concert in it too.) talked about where life derives meaning. After struggling with suffering in his time as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, he eventually came to the conclusion that the meaning of life is “other people”. This came after years of writing and thinking and interacting with those other people. Collaborative efforts with others, sharing in their joy, pain, sorrow, and their questions about the universe also allow us to become better. When we stop serving ourselves and start looking to the other, sometimes it allows us to see what needs to be fixed in our own lives. And even if it doesn’t, the concern, the empathy that we show when we put aside our selfish desires is what truely makes us human. The full potential, the “Afterman Ideal,” is that we are only as good as the people we care about. If life is simply about our own well being, we’re leaving so many experiences on the table. There is much to be done. Do not let yourself stand in the way.