First of all, let us agree that this seems to be fundamental to the issue of what matters in life as far as I am concerned. It is what I want, not what anyone else wants or what is best for the world. Some people may claim that everything that they do is for someone else - a son, daughter or other relative for example. But in most cases, this will be because the welfare of the other is what gives them the most satisfaction or feeling of worth in life or because they feel responsibility or guilt. Unselfishness is usually selfishness in disguise. There are people of the caliber of Mother Theresa in the world but we do not meet them very often.
There must be times when you just don’t feel like doing anything. Not because you are tired or ill but for no immediately obvious reason at all. Or maybe you do know why – a recent disappointment, divorce, death of a relation or any number of other causes has plunged you into a depression. Intellectually you know it is unreasonable or at least that there is nothing you can do about the situation. Practically speaking, you simply have to get on with life until it passes. Emotions rule however, and no amount of cajoling, whether from yourself or from others, can snap you out of it. In such a situation, nothing matters. You simply wallow aimlessly in a mire of indecision, where all perceptions are washed out and all feelings numbed.
Fortunately, for most of us such times are few. They pass and we are soon turning outwards again, taking an interest in others and in the events around us. And this can often go to the other extreme. We become passionately interested in some event, objective, person etc. to the point of obsession. Though there are many other things we know we ought to be doing, we cannot stop ourselves from spending all of our waking moments thinking about, planning for, working towards the thing that we feel really matters.
Clearly these situations relate to purely subjective concerns and we would not want to claim that they were important in any absolute sense. We may often delude ourselves that the things that concern us are genuinely important. It is usually the case, though, that everything that we believe matters does so only in respect of the degree to which it affects, or might affect, us personally. Those aspects deemed to be most important tend to be close to home, directly relating to ourselves, our work or our family and friends. As we move outwards to town and country, the importance tends to diminish unless there is still the potential to affect us eventually. Thus we might object to a proposal to build a landfill site anywhere within, say, a ten mile radius. If it were a nuclear waste dump, we might not be happy with a hundred miles.
Issues such as global warming ought perhaps to interest us all, making us anxious for future generations even though we may not be immediately affected. But so often this tends to be hypothetical. One scientist says that England will be partially flooded as the sea rises as a result of melting ice. Another claims that the Gulf Stream will be disrupted, causing the English Channel to freeze over in winter. The fact is that what matters does so because we know that it affects us (or those who matter to us) directly or because it is believed that it will affect us (or them) in the foreseeable future. We may grunt over our Cornflakes when we read of some remote Pacific island being flattened by a hurricane but it is usually forgotten the next minute.
Things can only really matter tous. If they do not and cannot affect us, and providing that we do not imagine that they might in the future, then they do not matter at all. There is no such thing as an objective “mattering.” Just as the Pacific islanders do not worry about the additional runways being built at Heathrow, so we do not worry that their village has just been flattened. When the Vogons arrive to blow up the earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass, it simply will not matter in the slightest to the residents of Splxalytl in the Andromeda galaxy. They might click their antennae disapprovingly as they hear about it on the hyper-waves over their dish of minced sand-worms but they will have forgotten all about it by the next minute.