How Important Are Important People?

There are people who hold an outsize place in our culture. We tend to mythologize individuals, and celebrate their role, for good or evil.

Why do we do this?

First, we tend to want to put a face to an organization or to a group. For example, Tim Cook is Apple. Pope Francis is the Catholic Church. Lebron James is basketball. A group of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people is difficult to conceptualize. But one name, one face that stands for a movement is something we can comprehend.

We also like to remember important contributions. Albert Einstein’s scientific contributions are such that his name and appearance have become synonymous with science. Mother Theresa was a symbol of kindness and generosity to the whole world.

But whether it is a celebrity, an athlete, or a musician, famous people drive ratings, increase page views, and sell newspapers. So clearly some people are considered, by society, more important than others. More worthy of attention.

What is the alternative?

However, an entire political movement has sprung up to combat this. Talk of income inequality, of the 1% — the richest and most powerful of society — is featured on debate stages and town hall meetings around the country. If wealth and influence are considered “important”, there is an ongoing effort to return some power and voice to those who don’t have it.

While it is worthwhile to appreciate the contributions of individuals, does that also have the effect of minimizing the efforts of others with a lower profile? Steve Jobs was a visionary, sure, but it was the engineers and software programmers of Apple that actually produced the iPod, iPhone, Macintosh computer, and other products. It is the rare individual whose success doesn’t rely on the efforts of dozen, or hundreds of unheralded workers.

Do we, as a society, give too much credit to too few people? Or is fame and fortune fully deserved (and obscurity of others so implied)? How important are important people? Does it matter how important is defined?

Related questions: What is important? Where does authority come from? Who is the most important person in your life? Which historical person would you like to meet?


1 thought on “How Important Are Important People?”

  1. Our communities, our country, and our world are experiencing far too many problems for people to feel like they are unimportant. We need people to feel like they matter; in fact, we need those people to actually matter. However, a combination of how we structure or assign power and influence, while also relegating others to just part of the masses or (worse yet) those who must suffer are poisons to the various communities in which we reside or associations or to which we belong.

    As the question’s context sets out, it’s too difficult for our brains to consider the contributions of hundreds, thousands, or millions, so we let the pendulum swing too far and give the stage to far-too-powerful individuals who receive the credit for creating change and/or making decisions on behalf of the rest of us.

    Again, I consider these tendencies poisons to the communities and associations to which we belong. Reorientations must occur, some on the individual level, others on a more systemic level regarding how we cede our power, whether it be to individual leaders, institutions, or an entertainment elite.

    On an individual level, how would your life change if you considered yourself and all those you came into contact with as important? Would you give more thought to the decisions you make because those decisions would impact others? Would you give more people the time of day because they deserved our attention?

    I’m an atheist; but I was raised a Christian. Whether or not a Jesus existed, some of the lessons taught through his story seem important to me. He treated those we often ignore, persecute, or even hate with the love they deserved. The poor, the immigrant, the sick, the hungry … they all mattered to him. They were all important.

    These days many people purport to believe in Jesus and say they see him as a guidepost for their lives. Of course, they fall short; no one could live to up to that example. But what if you tried — even just a little. Would you think about and treat the poor differently? Would you stop ignoring people experiencing homelessness? And would you reconsider writing out of your thoughts those suffering with extreme health problems because to think of it would be all too much for you to bear?

    Would you consider justice as important — or even more important — than charity? Would you disparage programs that seek to provide some relief or even serve the needs of people living in those situations? How would your thoughts and actions change when you recognized that half or more of those who suffer from our neglect are children? Children are important, right!?

    Have I strayed from the question? How important are important people?

    First let me acknowledge that we need leaders. I am thankful for most public servants who run for office or administer public programs. They sacrifice a lot — time, privacy, health, and (in some cases) money — to fulfill the important role they play. I also tip my hat to the leaders of nonprofits and activists who assume positions of leadership within campaigns and movements. They often sacrifice the same things as many politicians.

    But I do think, as I articulated above, there’s a huge imbalance between who we consider important and the many more who also are.

    And so, what is to be done? Let me simply say that in a world of limited resources, wealth, and attention spans, I believe that some of those in power need to cede some of what they’ve got. Whether it be people in the 1% or elected leaders who are in the truly higher places of power, the imbalance is too great.

    It sends a message that there are “great” people who deserve what they’ve got, while others must toil and suffer with little chance of true advancement. In fact, simply treading water is a herculean feat these days.

    Let me close, first, with an expression of gratitude and, second, with a lyric I think pretty apt and powerful.

    First, the gratitude. I’ve organized with several homeless folks who made incredible contributions to their community and to political debates. They not only offered their stories for elected leaders to consider, they worked for justice within and for their communities. Thank you, Shelley, David, Jesse, Thomas, Karen, and so many more who are or were, in fact, important just like those we naturally exalt.

    And to close, this lyric from Regina Spektor’s “The Trapper and the Furrier”:

    “What a strange, strange world we live in
    Those who don’t have lose, those who got get given
    More, more, more, more”

    This has got to change!

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