My niece, who is fully grown and has three wonderful boys, has a picture in her bathroom facing the toilet. It shows an adorable little boy looking at an inspirational ocean horizon, and it says “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove….but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

Other than the feelings of guilt that wash over me whenever I see it (“I should TOTALLY come to William and Michael’s baseball games or they’ll NEVER visit me when I’m in the nursing home”), this message always fills me with confusion. OK, so I drop everything and devote myself to a child, who does after all represent the future….Maybe he’ll grow up to be President and I will have made the world a better place! Maybe he will invent a cure for cancer!

But wait! In either of those scenarios, if he is to be any GOOD at running the world, he will be pretty busy. Shouldn’t he be devoting himself to being important in the life of a child, not to his job? That child could grow up to be….President! Or, finally, find a cure for cancer! Because there sure won’t be a cure even three generations from now if EVERYONE is devoting themselves to the life of a child instead of staying late in the laboratory.

Evolutionarily speaking, of course, the only thing that matters IS being important in the life of a child—as in, begetting and raising offspring to a point where they can beget and raise offspring. I did not know my niece was so into Darwinism. She is very, very bright and one of the most agreeable people I know. But she studied marketing, not anthro, and right now her anthropological activities are confined to driving her little monkeys to and from games.

When I remarked to a neighbor recently that her three girls looked exactly like their dad, she responded acerbically “I know they do. I’m just the package they came in.” Not many of us see ourselves as just the package some genes come in. Well, maybe Richard Dawkins. But my point is, we all need a purpose beyond existing and procreating, or it’s a pretty dreary existence we are creating. Love, faith, and caring for the planet are just some of the evolutionarily “dead ends” that motivate real people on a daily basis.

So maybe what matters is not the legacy of your life, but the shape of the life itself. Like, it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about trying and caring. Maybe it’s not about being important in the life of a child, but about making a child important in your life.

Or not. The best part is, we all get to choose. Now go out there and cure cancer.

This post was published in my blog,