Does My Life Count?
One of the fundamental desires we humans have is the desire for significance. We want – we need – our lives to count for something.
This is a longing that increases as we get older. In the movie About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays the role of a recently retired insurance middle manager. This sobering story charts Warren Schmidt’s struggle to find significance and meaning in life. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of his wife and fellow workers he feels useless and redundant. Soon his wife dies and his only daughter, who has made a life for herself in another city, marries a man whom Warren despises.
He is alone and desperately unhappy. But he finds some solace in the sponsoring of a small boy in Tanzania. Though he has never met the child, Warren begins to write letters to him, expressing his frustrations and deepest emotions about his life. In one letter he says:
I am weak and I am a failure. There’s just no getting around it. Relatively soon I will die. Maybe in twenty years. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.
Once I am dead and everyone I knew is dead as well, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made anyway? None. None at all.
Shortly after, Warren receives a letter from the Catholic sister responsible for the care of the sponsored boy. She explains that even though he cannot read, the small six-year-old orphan keeps his letters and thinks of him every day. He is grateful for Warren’s help and it has enabled him to get medical attention for an eye infection. Enclosed is a picture, drawn by the boy, of Warren and himself. The movie finishes as the realisation begins to sink in that maybe something of his life has mattered.
Warren Schmidt is right about his life. Much of it has counted for little. His relationships with his family, workmates and friends are largely broken and dysfunctional. Retirement has only accentuated the dismal lack of meaning. And yet, in the midst of all this gloom, there is something positive. Warren is able to appreciate and understand the difference that small acts of kindness can make to the lives of others.
Sadly, Warren’s deep angst is a common experience for many of us. We too long for significance and yet so often we stumble through life with serious questions about our lives. Do they really count for anything?