The importance of a thing (depends on the other things)

Shopper Chopper
Spotted in Chicago, one fine day

Importance, to me, was once upon a time a thing that could be quantified on a linear scale. That included relative importance, of course—something that was paramount to one person, even though it wasn’t to others, was important to me if the person was. And temporal importance—when something mattered in this moment even if it didn’t at other times. Etc.

In keeping with the law of conservation of matter, when something “important” came along, the “unimportant” was automatically discarded. If a deep conversation was inspired late at night, sleep was forfeited, because (in my younger days) sleep was dispensable and relatively trivial compared with the sharing of personal ideas. Where circumstances changed for someone in a dramatic way, the mundane seemed profane in the face of anything directly related to the change.

How to reconcile, then, when the person prefers the quotidian? In a recent New England Journal of Medicine article,* a physician ponders the counterintuitive desire of some people to continue in their everyday manner even in their last days. “How can the dying be so habitually themselves, expressing mundane thoughts? Shouldn’t death be a time of truth telling and atonement, of reconciliation and expressions of love? In fact, yes, death might offer an opportunity for all these things, but maybe more reliably, it allows a space for life to go on just as it was. […] Many find it oppressive to dwell strictly on meaning making, intense emotions, and life review. And that’s probably even more true for dying people themselves. The mundane may be the greatest comfort there is, a reminder that life simply goes on.”

It’s only in recent years that I’ve begun to grasp such a concept, even in the lesser context of supposedly significant events. I started my life surrounded by people who put a lot of emphasis on meaning making (and some to the point of imbuing ordinary occurrences with arbitrary significance—I have since found this to be quite counterproductive). Encounters with others who appeared to have zero sentimentality and 100% laissez-faire in every interaction baffled me. But I’m starting to get it.


How important a thing is depends on how many other important things are going on at the same time. They do dilute each other.


The perfume statement Gentle Fluidity by Maison Francis Kurkdjian uses the same 49 ingredients in different proportions for the gold and silver versions. I find it ironic that the representation of gender fluidity is expressed in a binary form, but I appreciate the campaign. I recently got to smell the duo and after a short car ride holding the 2 blotters side by side, I found the vanilla-amber of gentle Fluidity (gold) suffocating and gravitated more toward the metallic gin facets of Gentle fluidity (silver), although it was also a bit overbearing for me.

The duality illustrates the point, though, that the perceived prominence of each ingredient varies relative to that of the other 48. This phenomenon becomes especially apparent when planning (for) an event—each detail in isolation might be fun and interesting, but juxtaposed with many others, the totality becomes overwhelming. Similarly, something small that “makes your day” one day may be just a drop in the ocean on a day when your calendar is stacked.


“The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”—C. S. Lewis


So, let’s choose our “important” things wisely.


*Wellbery C. The comfort of the ordinary—on dying as we’ve lived. N Engl J Med. 2019;381(8):701-703.






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