Way back when I was in university a psych prof talked about our greatest fears. I don’t recall all of them, but I do remember the top three, public speaking, dying, and failure. What really struck me was that I didn’t really buy into any of these being our greatest fear. I couldn’t come up with a theory for what our greatest fear is. I’ve been bouncing it around in my head for decades.
I recall hearing Nelson Mandela give a speech in which he said our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. I liked it a lot. He was quoting from the work of Marianne Williamson. As moving as the quote is, I didn’t buy it either. I don’t think it’s our greatest fear.
I’ve come to believe that our greatest fear is insignificance.
I’ve come to this conclusion from my experience and from observing life. Whether it’s from reading books, blogs, or news stories, watching movies, listening to people share what’s on their hearts, or simply asking people, there’s a recurring pattern.
We all want to matter.
We want our lives to matter to someone. We want our lives to have some kind of impact. We want a sense of purpose.
This deep longing for significance is twofold. There’s the need for our life to matter to someone else—that someone cares about us. And there’s the need to know our life is contributing to the bigger meaning of life—that what we do makes a difference.
For some of us, part of that significance can come from a spiritual connection we have to our creator, to the one we acknowledge as God. But for many that isn’t their reality. They either don’t see it, feel it, or want to see it that way. Even for those who might have that spiritual connection the whole getting your significance from God thing can seem challenging because of the challenge of finding tangible evidence that we matter to God. Regardless, of which group we fall into, we all seem to long for significance. It’s inherent in who we are. It doesn’t matter if we’re not necessarily the type of person who seems to be demonstrative of that need, it’s there.
We all want to matter.
Whether it’s that seemingly insensitive and apparently uncaring or independent person, or that happy confident person who doesn’t seem to have a worry in the world, we all want to matter. We can deny it, or admit it. It doesn’t change the reality of every person’s desire to matter. No one wants to feel unloved, shunned, ridiculed, useless, isolated, lonely, or embarrassed.
If our greatest need is to matter, it only makes sense that our greatest fear is not mattering—insignificance. I’m not claiming we should have this fear, or any fear. It would be great if we could live without fear. I’m simply making a statement about the reality for most of us. We live with a certain level of insecurity, or fear.
Thankfully most of us don’t let the fear of insignificance cripple us. For the most part, it’s because we have a healthy level of significance in our lives, and often, that sense of value comes from other people. It comes from people who care about us, give us a compliment, encourage us, appreciate our contribution, love us, and let us be part of their lives. They let us know we matter.
Sometimes awareness is half the battle. If we’re aware that there’s this need for significance we can make a difference by being one of those people who encourages others, who says a kind word, who does an act of kindness, who simple loves those around them, and in turn, makes them feel significant. My guess is we’ll also feel significant.
Usually, if we put others before ourselves we’ll have a greater sense of purpose to our lives.