Most of the people I know are quite modest. In both the circles of my family and my friends, I know absolutely none who have illusions of grandeur (though I do have some suspicions), and while some of them have something called ambition, they are emotionally mature enough not to let it warp their ego. Arrogance is, thank goodness, not a trait I frequently come in contact with. In fact, I find that many of my loved ones tend to underestimate their value towards others. I don’t blame them for that, because I used to do this to an extreme degree myself, and I’m sure that in many aspects of my life I continue to do so today. However, I have recently encountered some strong arguments why you shouldn’t underestimate your value to others. They aren’t the reasons you’d expect.
Nugatory means ‘of no value or importance’ in one definition and ‘useless or futile’ in a second definition. It derives from the Latin word ‘nugatorius’, meaning ‘worthless’, ‘trifling’ or ‘futile’. This word, in turn, derives from the noun ‘nugator’, a word referring to a ‘jester’ (you know, the funny guy who juggles and does card tricks). ‘Nugator’ is then derived from the past participle (‘nugatus’) of the verb ‘nugari’, meaning ‘to trifle’, ‘jest’ or ‘play the fool’. The concatenation of derivation stops in a dead end with ‘nugae’, a ‘joke’, ‘jest’ or ‘trifle’, which itself is of unknown origin.
Sadly but truly, it is a fact—maybe not universally acknowledged, but at least silently agreed upon—that many people have a lower sense of self-worth than truly gives them credit. I myself have had this for a very long time, and during the darkest days of my depression (a little less than a year ago now) I considered my existence so nugatory that the only thought pervading my mind during those days was this: that nobody would even notice if I were gone. As I belong now to the land of the more-or-less-mentally-stable, I can see that that thought was quite fallacious. As much as I aspire towards humility as a virtue, thinking that nobody would even notice that I were gone is a rather idiotic idea, simply because it’s not true. Apart from the fact that thinking that was grossly selling myself short, considering myself dispensable was not only hurting my self-esteem. It was also hurting others.
I don’t know if this idea is surprising to you—I know it was for me—, but acknowledging your value to others is affecting them as much as it is affecting you. This is why, for example, suicides are sometimes called ‘selfish’. I find this an extremely narrow point-of-view, considering that (attempted) suicides generally have so little self-worth left that the idea that what they are doing is selfish is altogether absurd. But I do understand why people who say this believe that it is. Because, in not acknowledging the value of your own life, you are, albeit quite unintentionally, also denying the impact you are having on theirs. Though—let me make this absolutely clear—depression is not in any way a device concocted to hurt others, underestimating your own significance to them may almost seem like you’re mocking their commitment to you. In writing off your life as nugatory, you’re also quietly killing a part of their life—the part they share with you.
Recently the internet—the Source of Everything—presented me with a term which aptly captures the phenomenon. We all, by now, have heard of a ‘carbon footprint’, which calculates the impact your consumption of all kinds of goods (food, water, gasoline etc.) has on the planet. The greater your carbon footprint, the greater your impact on the planet. The idea is to keep your carbon footprint as low as possible, keeping the idea in mind that if everyone would do that, the earth wouldn’t go to waste as quickly as it is now. Alas, we find that this isn’t working all that well. But the theory is useful, as recently I have been introduced to something called a ‘Life Psychological Footprint’. Explained very briefly, this is the impact the way you are living your life is having on the lives of others.
If we all thought about it, I think we would be truly astounded by how consequential even our tiniest actions can be for the lives of others. I still remember one time when a random stranger stopped me in the street to compliment me on the hat I was wearing. To this person, the compliment was probably nothing more than a throwaway comment, but the fact that I still remember it (almost two years later) shows that it definitely made an impact—however silly it may seem. To apply the theory to myself, I also remember the time when one of my friends told me that I inspired her. I was baffled by this notion. Me, inspire people? Silly little me? How the hell did that happen?
As these examples (which are merely two random selections from a giant catalogue of incidents) illustrate, we are constantly in interaction with others, in a social network which is so elaborate and complex that it is virtually impossible to estimate how your myriad little actions affect others. If I only think about the books I read and the authors I admire—these are all people who don’t even know I exist, and yet they have made an impact on my life which has definitely not been nugatory. Whenever I publish a blogpost, I admit that I’m both happy and anxious when I see the number of pageviews go up (especially from all those anonymous readers in the States—say hi, America!), because I’m always afraid that my words may have undesired effects. Being a writer, I know exactly how powerful (and at the same time how meaningless) words can be, so I always pray that my words don’t bring up any unintended unpleasantness.
Bottom line: never underestimate your importance to others. You shouldn’t overestimate it either, but don’t sell yourself short. And this goes both for the positive as for the negative. A simple smile given to a stranger might make their day (who knows they might be having a crappy one). A compliment given to a friend might lift their spirits considerably. But a snide remark might break those spirits just as easily. And a disapproving frown might abruptly transform a good day into a bad one.
The surprising thing in all this for me was the knowledge that exaggerated modesty can be actually detrimental to those around you. Modesty, which I always considered a positive attribute, can have pernicious consequences if it means that you consider your actions nugatory. Of course, you shouldn’t (and can’t) take this too far either: if you’re constantly thinking about how your actions impact other people, you start living more in their heads than in your own, which would make a normal life impossible. But we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves either. How many times have you heard (and maybe uttered) the phrase ‘I didn’t realize it meant so much to you’? Why yes, it does, and I think that if we would all get a better grasp on our own Life Psychological Footprint, we would realize exactly how much it (and you) mean(s) to them. And if we could acknowledge that, we would be more generous with our support (yes, it makes a big difference), and, more importantly, we would stop hurting each other so damn much (which we do without even realizing it).