The idea of living a useful life is one that preoccupies many. They wonder if what they are doing with their time has any value in the scheme of things, regardless of what endeavor they undertake. For some people, a driving force to have children is predicated on the idea of meaning. Having children means in some way they will go on, even after they die. It seems a safer bet than relying on some ephemeral afterlife to take you through eternity.
But even tangible efforts at meaning fail for some. The quest for the life that matters becomes problematic when one creates some hierarchy, whereby some people are useful, and some are not. Many times, when people fail to find satisfaction in their own pursuits, they take refuge in the fact that what they are doing with their lives is better than what someone else is doing with his. A person who loses interest in his career and marriage congratulates herself because at least she isn't as useless as the drug addict who shoots lines over there across the street. At least I am contributing something to the world, the befuddled careerist and wife reasons. Welfare recipients, down-and-out alcoholics, street people, and prostitutes are obvious losers in this comparison. However, the comparison can be just as vehement amongst those who are not amongst these populations.
People who seem to have found their niche also make comparisons to others who don't fit into their scheme. The 2001 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market (Writer's Digest Books, 2001) features an article by Sandra Gurvis entitled "Smackdown! Writers Ring In on Literary vs. Genre Fiction". Just the WWF reference alone gives the idea of one group smashing the other into oblivion so that their brand of fiction prevails. Though many of the authors she interviews keep to what compels them to write their own brand of fiction, some of them can't help but throw digs at the "other" type of fiction.
Sometimes education is a dividing factor, whether it deals with how much or where. Those with college education "feel sorry" for those who "can't make it in the world" because they don't have the educational levels they do, even though many with less than a college education do perfectly fine financially or otherwise. On the reverse end, some without college education will boast that they didn't waste their time with books, they went to the "school of life", as though books somehow weren't real themselves. Instead of learning from each other's perspectives, each side gets into a useless debate proving that their experience has more validity than the other's.
Religion seems particularly afflicted with this incessant comparison. Some religious fundamentalists feel that religious liberals are too wishy-washy in their doctrine to represent their religion. Religious liberals counterattack by accusing fundamentalists of dogmatism. Instead of finding common ground to work on, they separate themselves into opposite camps, fearing the accusations of the other, and claiming that their way is the better way, that the other people are just wasting their time.
Pride in one's culture, lifestyle, or way of being is a good thing. Certainly one is entitled to preferring one type of fiction to another, feel satisfaction in his educational experience, or adhere to the doctrine that his conscience dictates. The problem becomes when he feels such a sense of superiority that he feels that those who differ from him in any way don't really count, because they haven't found the "truth" as he has. It is as if, in some way, the dissenters do not matter; and are a waste, useless to society.
What if all life mattered? What if absolutely no one's way of life, of thinking, was useless, and instead contributed to some grand scheme of things, on both the individual and societal level? This murkiness is not as comfortable as the black and white insistence that there are certain designated lifestyles that are deemed useful while others are nixed entirely. What about evil? Is al-Qaeda useful? Certainly to people who belong or support them it is, just as the West's "evil" life based on capitalism is useful to many in the West. How about child molesters or serial killers? That's a useful way to live?
Perhaps their actions are not. But raising the question that these criminals as human beings are worthwhile poses a challenge for any who believe that certain people are more worthy than others, more useful than "those" people. Many conservatives in the pro-life movement wind up with a quandary: they believe that all people have a right to life in the womb, but once one of those individuals commit a "heinous" crime as an adult, we have the right, in fact, perhaps, the obligation, to execute that person. But though one's actions are despicable, does that mean the life itself is worthless and thus, dispensable?
Determining a life which matters is a personal cognizance. No one knows for sure if a person is contributing or wreaking destruction in the long run by his actions. Therefore, a life that matters is one that is lived by one's conscience, no matter what the philosophy du jour is, if it's in to be conservative or liberal, or fat or thin is the fashion. Perhaps in the end, a life that matters is simply life itself.