There are many significant dates in a person’s life.
A birthday, for example, is considered to be quite significant.
A year, 365 days, is a unit of measurement derived from the amount of time it takes the Earth to travel around the sun. Which is cool, but bears no actual relevance to a person’s life. There’s no set number of experiences a person has in such a time period. As milestones go, a birthday’s only significance is that most of us stop and take stock after about the same amount of time has passed since our last birthday.
Birthdays are dates of ‘relative significance’: something that is significant to us, but not significant on a larger, concrete, non-personal scale.
Consider another event of relative significance: New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1999.
Folks were going nutty over all the supposed meanings of such a switch, but in actuality the new (Gregorian) calendar was introduced to avoid using the older (Julian) calendar. Why? Because the older one documented a time period during which Christians were persecuted, and the new calendar was calibrated using the assumed dates of things like the birth of the Bible’s Adam, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. There’s no orienting documentation for these events which are used as milestones, and as such, the modern calendar starts from an arbitrary point in time worked out by a Scythian monk in 525 AD.
Which means the year 2000 doesn’t have any absolute significance, only personal significance. It’s a number that feels different to us, being nice and round and big, and therefore living through that kind of transition, the year 1999 to the year 2000, feels important. The only importance it has, though, is the importance we allow it to have; that we imbue it with.
Now consider the Y2K bug: an overhyped error caused by some computer code in which there were only two digits allowed for the year. The resulting bug, it was thought, would cause computers of all kinds to think the year 2000 (listed as ’00’) was actually the year 1900 (also listed as ’00’) and kill our financial structures, office spreadsheets, and AOL accounts.
Thankfully, this didn’t end up happening. The bug only impacted a very small number of machines. But such a bug is a good example of ‘practical significance,’ which is something that’s noteworthy in an absolute way.
No matter how you or I might have felt about transitioning to the year 2000, that bug could have had major repercussions. It was real in a way that was untethered from our perception of it.
Many of the things we allow to have significance in our lives are not of the practical variety, but the personal. Consider, too, that items of personal significance only carry the weight you allow them to carry.
If you decide that birthdays aren’t important, then they aren’t important. If you decide that squirrels are significant to you in a way that other animals are not, then squirrels become ‘your’ animal. Recognizing that we have this power, over time we can experience fewer emotional entanglements with birthdays, or find greater joy in squirrels.
It’s not always easy to detach emotion from things that seem so deeply ingrained, but recognizing that they’re only important because you allow them to be definitely helps. And this is perhaps most true when it comes to traumatic, harmful, or restrictive things, people, or moments from our past that we allow to negatively impact our future. We decide how we feel about the things that happen to us, and we decide what we take away from such experiences.
There are few things more empowering than the realization that the most significant things in your life are whatever you want them to be.
Update: April 16, 2017
Significance is something we imbue in things, not something we discover in things. It’s a super power we have that we can use to bring positive, awesome stuff into our lives, or we can use it to make the worst thing that ever happened to us meaningful in a way that it’s not, except in our minds.
It’s not an easy thing to keep in mind, but it’s worth remembering when you find yourself obsessing over some horrible thing that seems important, or wanting to find more value in something that is good for you but currently otherwise meaningless.