God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money.
I think a lot about mattering. Do I matter, how can I help other people know that they matter, what matters to me in my life. Our culture makes it easy to measure ourselves this way: how many likes did I get on social media? How successful am I in my career? How much money do I make? I used to get my “I matter” fix from teaching, which I did for over 20 years until I left my job for love (an oversimplification, but also true). Now I get it from the poems I publish, as well as social media. But I don’t have the career or the money anymore, and I don’t have the high of telling students that their thoughts and talent and writing matters. I have realized that I depended on that “fix,” and I struggle to figure out how to cope now.
Buddhism has an answer, which is helpful for me and might be for you. This philosophy suggests that our desire to “matter,” to be someone important, is all ego—and that ego contributes to our suffering as human beings. Certainly that makes sense: when I think about the upcoming writer’s conference I’ll be attending, the big one in America that’s attended by something like 12,000 writers, I cringe when I measure myself against the other writers there. When I think that I’m “nobody” compared to other writers with bigger reputations and more prestigious publications, I find myself dreading the conference. But when I ease my grasp on the ego, stop privileging the idea of “mattering,” I find myself looking forward to seeing my friends and meeting new writers.
Of course it’s not as simple as just “letting go” of ego. And, in fact, it can be hard to recognize why we should, when so much in our culture tells us that’s the only way to measure value. However, Buddhism goes on to point out why ego can contribute to our suffering. First, it denies the interconnectedness of all beings; ego relies on separation between people. Science recognizes interconnectedness through quantum mechanics (which I admit I don’t really understand) as well as the facts of the building blocks of the universe being the same. It’s often said, but humans are made of the same stuff as the stars.
Second, ego and the building of a self that “matters” contributes to the false idea that we are not supposed to change. If we create a self that is defined only by certain things—being famous or wealthy, for example—then we can become trapped by that vision of the self. And yet we know from observation that everything changes. To recognize and embrace change is to minimize suffering; to resist it leaves you hurting when change inevitably comes. For me, this is an important lesson as I make the transition away from teaching. My life is going to change, and though I cannot help but grieve some things about how it used to be, I can let go of some of my pain by accepting the change. Whatever’s next for me—independent poetry workshops, online teaching, much more time for writing—is a natural part of the way things are and should be.
Third, allowing ego to drive us can lead to the trap of never feeling good enough. If we must be more famous, more successful, in order to matter, then we can never recognize our own basic goodness. If you’ve ever really gotten to know someone you perceive to be more successful in your field than you are, then you’ve seen that they do not consider themselves successful. They, too, worry about how much they’ve published, how much money they make, whether they matter. You may recognize that other person’s inherent goodness, how they are just fine as they are, right now. But they may not. The endlessness of the struggle for success—if you buy into it—can rob you of the knowledge that you are perfect, just as you are right now.
All of which brings me to the Quincy Jones quote I used as an epigraph. If you’re an artist of any kind—writer, musician, dancer, visual artist, etc.—it might be good to bear in mind that fixation on money or success can drive away innovation and inspiration. That art comes from a different part of the self, not the ego but someplace deeper and more mysterious. So if we shift what “matters” from us to the work itself, we might not only mitigate our suffering, but get closer to whatever grand mystery we each believe in.