I’m probably one of the only people in my English class who is actually enjoying most of the readings, besides my English teacher, but we recently read The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden.
In a way, The Unknown Citizen is in relation to The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, honoring an unknown person of high standard and quality. You can read the full poem here, but in summary, W. H. Auden lists out a “memorial” of an unknown but good man of society. A man who paid his dues, was never fired, “added five children to the population”, and had every material item every modern man could want. At the end of the poem, however, the “narrator” (who I assume could be “the government”), asks this: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”
During college, I’ve felt farther from immaturity than I have ever felt (noting that my teenage years are thankfully over), yet I feel closer to feelings eerily similar of those people with mid-life crises experience. Time is flying faster than it ever has, and while such a perception of time is normal, I fear getting old. I haven’t done much yet, or so I believe. Constantly I feel the need to do something, to create, imagine, write, read, experience, and feel. I want to get the most out of life.
While I know that life can be meaningful, I’m still trying to find out how I can make my life meaningful. The Unknown Citizen reiterates a realization I’ve had. A good person of society, someone who lives the American dream isn’t always going to be remembered. We will never know if the hypothetical or figurative “Unknown Citizen” was happy. Perhaps he was, though maybe only after brief moments of stimulation and achievement in the forms of getting a promotion, finding a job, getting married, and having kids. However, he wasn’t remembered by many people.
Being remembered isn’t the most important thing in the world. And while yes, not being a good citizen of society will get you remembered briefly by a few people due to outrageous violations of the law and social norms, just being a good citizen won’t automatically make you a remembered citizen or person.
Being remembered isn’t the most gratifying achievement of the human experience, but I believe it reveals something deeper in the felt needs of… well… everyone. The need to be remembered is the need to do something significant or meaningful. Not everyone will know of your achievements, success, ideas, thoughts, or knowledge, but at least you contributed something, anything, to society.
Sometimes I have a good idea or thirst for something and explore it just because it’s fascinating. Sometimes, however, I feel the need to create anything that could be “the next big thing”, the shiny object that will catch someone’s eye, the audition into the World’s Hall of Fame, Success, and Acknowledgement. It’s easy to be envious of popular writers and poets of 20th-21st centuries, and I feel like I have ideas as good as their’s that could be contributed to the realm of writing or fiction.
I don’t want to live a normal life. Of course, some days, I feel excited to think I might embark on such milestones of getting a job, getting married, having kids, a career, a life, but I want more than that. I need more than that. There’s a thirst in me to go where no man has gone before. To look for things unseen, to know things unknown.
A good life might be a mundane one. Just living a normal life is a good standard, but I want to be remembered. I want to do something meaningful, even if it isn’t seen by everyone. I want to contribute something, anything, that could change society and life just ever so slightly. It doesn’t have to be big, but I wish I could say, “I did that. My existence has contributed to society.”
Of course, I know that every life is meaningful, and I doubt there are large swarms people out there who only seek to be parasites of other people’s lives, never contributing anything to sum of human existence. But, what will that thing be that I give? What is my talent? What is my fated endeavor and prospect in life?
I want to be an introvert with a voice. I want to turn my thoughts into words, visions into pictures, ideas into theories, emotions into music, thirst into knowledge. Is there anything I can do that will achieve that?
In many of my classes, yes, I’m among a small audience. I hate being the center of attention, but when I’m creating something, either a speech or an essay, I think, “Maybe this will be the idea the teacher sees that will stick in their head. Maybe this speech will actually contribute to the lives of this classroom. Maybe this unknown route will be a new dimension in mathematics, this theory a new wave in psychology, this idea a ripple in English.”
…Which is all just wishful thinking. Realistically, none of that will happen. Right now, especially in this day and age, politics and media are crowded with millions of people talking and contributing ideas, thoughts, videos, images, etc, and only a few are truly remembered or noticed by many.
In the end, will I be free? Will I be happy? I don’t know. My hope is that I’ll have that one really good idea that will catch the eye of many people. Even that’s unrealistic. I’ll never achieve “perfect writer” status, and no writer ever does. My style will change over the years, hopefully improving ever so slightly. My life can be meaningful, but I have to make it meaningful. Things don’t come easy. Success and acknowledgement are hard work. Can I, will I work hard enough? Or is just a normal life good enough for me? I don’t know.
The American Dream is… only a dream. The Pursuit of Happiness; merely the pursuit. Tomorrow will come, but then the next day will be… tomorrow. We can also hope for more and dream for more. We can wish, but only wish.
Even though I know I have written meaningful pieces and have done good, decent things, each thing has to be better than the last. Even the best things aren’t good enough to me now, me right here, right now. Everything has to be better; nothing is good enough. If I did good then but am struggling now I’m failing. Nothing is ever satisfying enough to me and there’s always more to do and things to write and ideas to explore and places to see; this thirst, this need for meaning is so frustrating.
I know I can never be there, the oh, so, magnificent, nonexistent future self of me that always finishes unfinished projects, completes procrastinated assignments on time, published a book, contributed brilliant ideas to academia, and has that meaning I, my current self, am still searching for. That guy is the most unrealistic person I can ever hope to be, yet it’s still a dream I have. And I fear, most especially, that if my younger self saw where I was right now, he’d be disappointed.
I don’t want to be forgotten. I want to leave even just a pebble to the contributions of society. It’s just a pebble, but when everyone’s contributions add up all of those contributions come up to be something bigger, heavier, taller, all because of my small contribution.
But… time passes. Some things will be done. Some won’t. I’ll accomplish some things. Other things I’ll forget and neglect. Life isn’t perfect. In the end, I might be remembered. Maybe I won’t. It’s hard. You can’t forget something that never existed, but you can’t remember anything that you haven’t seen or heard.
I don’t want to be the Unknown Citizen, the guy who even though does everything right and follows every rule never does anything more or less than what is required of him. While I yearn for those milestones of a normal life, I don’t want my life to just be normal. I don’t want it to be mundane. I want it to be meaningful.
Not everything has to be remembered. Not everything will be. After this and for most of my life, I’ll still be yearning for “the next big thing”. My big audition. My theory for academia. My piece in a newspaper.
Do I have the voice, even as an introvert? Can I turn my thoughts to words? Transform my fantasies into realities? Can I “make it”, out in the real world?
I know I can, if I try. I won’t as perfect as the high and mighty future self of me, but trying will get me closer to him than if I just feeling mopey about my poor prospects in life.
So what will it be then? What will the next big thing be?
I don’t know. But I better get working on it. It will be too late before I know it.