Knowing What Is Vital And What Is Important
James Agate—journalist, critic, novelist, and supreme diarist of the English language—once made the distinction between things that are vital and things that are important. It was 1940. Britain was at war with Germany. A friend questioned his intention to carry on publishing his famous Ego series of diaries in the midst of a national crisis.
“It means that you regard your Diary as more important than the war.” [The friend said]
[Agate responded] “Well, isn’t it? The war is vital, not important.”
What Agate meant was that you need not allow even the most cataclysmic events to consume all of your time and attention. If, for example, you are suddenly stricken with a fatal disease, that disease becomes vital to you: you must survive it in order to live. However, it does not follow that you must give up all that you love, cherish, and take an interest in to think solely about it.
This lesson—the distinction between vital-ness and importance—is relevant to the more modest difficulties of everyday life. It is easy to allow setbacks such as the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, or the discovery of a minor health problem to overshadow everything else that interests you.
Of course, being laid off or losing the promotion you were going for is a blow to your material well-being. But it should not touch who you are as a man; it should have no bearing whatsoever on your passion for life. Living out the fullness of your humanity is important; the contingencies of work and health are merely vital—the material bases for such pursuits.
So, how do you tell what is vital from what is important? The simplest way of going about it is to examine the constants in your life—the people, ideas, and objects that will be there to comfort and satisfy you no matter what. If you are part of a close-knit family and have forged strong bonds with your parents or siblings, their welfare, opinions, and love are important. The same can be said of lifelong friends. What the people who have been there for you when you’ve needed them say and think is important.
The world of culture and ideas also falls into this category. No matter how many difficulties I face in a given week or the disappointments that result from them, the pleasure I get from my favorite authors remains undiminished. A bad month of work may make me worry about how I am going to make ends meet; but it has nothing to do with the worlds that Henry James created, and I will never let it interfere with my enjoyment of them.
Pushing yourself to succeed in your chosen profession is a good thing. I am in no way suggesting that you un-man yourself, give up your ambition, and become a flower child. But part of being a strong and independent man is not allowing every piece of bad news to eat you up inside. The ability to know what’s important, even while confronting the gravest of challenges, is a mark of the kind of rational worldliness we should all strive toward.
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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.