Monday, June 9, 2008

Intrinsic self worth

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from a person whom I admire greatly and is, also, a widely known and respected individual. When I first saw his name in my inbox, I thought it was a mistake of some kind. But no, it was a short, friendly message. I wrote back, rather gushingly, including some self-effacing statement of how much it meant to me since I am a "nobody" and live a "small life".

He wrote me again, with this admonition: "There is no such thing as a nobody or a small life." That sentence hit me in the gut. It was a wake-up call.


On the one hand, I agree with the statement. Everything in me, everything I've learned from years of reading Buddhist sutras, interpretations, spending time in a Buddhist monastery, meditating, practicing yoga, both alone and at the Krapalu center, reading and rejecting most Western philosophy, immersing myself in Quakerism, trying to understand the teachings of Jesus, the teacher (not the son of god), and sitting with an incredible cross section of people while tattooing has shown me that every single one of us has a life that is precious.


I've said over and over again that if a life touches only one other person, makes a difference to only one other person, it is a life that is worth something. I do not know who posited this, but it is said that if a child is acknowledged by only one adult in their life, it can make a world of difference. Having been a pathologically shy, essentially invisible child, and remembering how much I craved someone to see me, to give me a pat on the back, to encourage me or to ask me what my dreams might be (or let me know I could have a dream at all), I agree completely with this generally held idea.

I think all of us, children and adults alike, need others to recognize our specialness. Every one of us is special. Whether our lives are mundane or lived large and in the public eye, we each are unique and have something unique to offer. It may not be apparent, for most of us, what that special something we contribute may be, but it is there.

Even though I say these things, a part of me bristles. I feel like I've spend most of my life underachieving, and this is indeed true. It's not about money, which is a perpetual disaster, for I've lived at the poverty level for many years, feeling as if I'm fairly well off. The price of home heating oil and gas may change everything this coming winter, but I will leave thoughts of that aside for the moment.

What makes me an underachiever is not living up to my potential. Why is that? Has it been because I was afraid? Some times, yes. Other times, it was just bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the 80's, I foresaw the trend for making hand-make things quite clearly. I worked, part-time, at a historical society, where I taught both children and adults how to do various crafts. Both the children and the adults just lapped it all up with giddiness. For the adults, it was such a respite from their busy, striving lives. To stop for a few hours and just sit with a piece of cloth in their hands, slowly stitching something they could have purchased in a flash, seemed to be a transforming experience. For my embroidery classes, I would bring in boxes of thread and have everyone pick out the colors they would use in their projects. Almost every person would say, "Oh, but I'm not an artist!" and have a small panic attack when confronted with making an aesthetic decision. I looked at these women (yes, they were all women) and saw their expensive, well-picked out clothes and thought they didn't realize just how many aesthetic decisions they actually made in the course of an average day. "You pick out your clothes by yourself in the morning, dont you?", I would ask them. This, they could understand, and suddenly every single one of them would be transformed into their own experts. Sure, many of them would ask me what I thought of their choices, but I'd always say it was not for me to decide.

I sensed such a deep craving in my students to make things with their hands, even if they spent their days making large decisions at corporations or eating every meal out in a fancy restaurant. Perhaps it was because of this, I thought, that they craved the hand made. I sat down and wrote a proposal for this small struggling historical society on Long Island to expand their adult education department and to create a gallery in which local people could display their work, along with the history behind it. It would have been a great boon to this organization, but they thought I was out of my mind. It was the age of women in power suits. How could I possibly think that more than a handful of these women would want to take time out of their busy lives to sit and knit or make quilts?

Then Martha Stewart came along and proved me right. Damn her!

This is only one of the incidents like these that have peppered my life. For the sake of honesty, I will say I've had some lucky breaks, but though I'm talking about myself, this isn't all about me - "I" am only using my self as an example. I suppose at some point I stopped trying too hard and decided to be satisfied with my lot, which is always a pretty good idea. On the other hand, resignedly stopping to think big is not a good strategy. It is rather like having been hurt in love, and vowing to never love again. It's a sign of a spirit that is broken.

I'm going to argue a bit with myself in this post. On the other hand, our worth does not lie in what we do. We are intrinsically perfect and unique. I recall John Bradshaw, who was once a popular writer and speaker, said over and over, "We are human beings, not human doings." Albert Ellis, though a total crackpot (in my humble opinion) speaks disparagingly about what he calls the "myth of self-esteem". He posits it is all based on what we do and what our good qualities are. He is right. If you've ever been to a therapist or participated in some therapy group, you've probably encountered the assignment of being forced to write two lists about yourself, one being your accomplishments and good qualities and the other, being your deficits. The reason? To force yourself to reasonably and clearly see how decent and valuable you really are. What if you choose to live your life as a drunk, caring not at all to work, and live in squalor or on the street? Does this make you worthless? Some people might say yes, but I do not. Every one has intrinsic self worth. It doesn't matter what you do.

Now, I'm sure some of you are ready to jump on me for what I've written above, for I am saying something along these lines: Mother Theresa and a junkie are both worth the same amount.

Do you remember when insurance companies tried to figure out the price of a life for the people killed in 9/11? It was based on their money making ability. It was an outrage. A busboy at Windows of the World's life was worth very little, while a man who pushed paper around his desk at Dean Witter was worth far more. I'm sure their families didn't think so. A parent, a lover, a partner or a friend is worth the same amount no matter what they do.

But no, if one looks to folks in Hollywood or the upper echelons of business or politics (or any other competitive field) this is simply not true, and it, quite frankly, disgusts me. Having a friend who has an influential job is worth much more than a friend who lives an anonymous life. After all, what is the low person on the totem pole able to do for you? Oh, sure, they can provide emotional support and great conversation, but will they be able to get you that meeting with some other big shot you haven't met and are dying to take lunch with so you can make your pitch?

How about the women on the arms of the power brokers? Would Donald Trump show up at a party with a clearly overweight woman whom nobody has ever heard of and is not wearing a designer dress? I think not.

You might say, what do these people have to do with our everyday lives? A lot, in my estimation. They tell us many things: 1. You are not good enough. 2. You should be more ambitious. 3. You should be better looking. 4. You should try harder. Or, to sum it up: "You are a loser".

And no matter how much I feel at one with the world whilst sitting in meditation, that feeling, "I am a loser", just doesn't go away. I may tell others, with great conviction, that they are not, and I believe it, but I still do not believe it about myself.

I will end here. This is certainly not my final word on this subject, I can assure you. It is but the opening volley and, I hope, the beginning of a conversation with you, whoever you may be.

Photo note: You may be wondering, why does this post have to do with pictures of Cher, pre and post plastic surgery? Well, one reason is because you can find thousands of photographs of Cher, pre and post plastic surgery, along with catty comments, all over the web (and in many, many magazines). This could be any female celebrity. From reading just the minimum about women in Hollywood, Diane Keaton may be the only one who has not succumbed to surgery. It is not only aging stars who do this today, but people of all ages. Did you know that one in a hundred women in this country have had boob jobs?

The thing is, what's worse (well, only minimally) is all the catty websites about the celebrities. "See how Meg Ryan has ruined her face!" "Heather Locklear: what happened to her cheekbones?!" You know the headlines. Why do "we" do this?

I believe it is because of what I have been writing about in this post. Those of us with ordinary lives feel less than, no matter how much we protest. And so, when we see celebrities imploding, whether it's emotionally, with bad plastic surgery, compulsive child rearing and adoption or any number of indicators that they are not really happy with themselves or their lives, we not so secretly rejoice. Yay! One doesn't have to be rich or beautiful to be miserable. C'mon, what was she thinking wearing that dress (which cost the price of my yearly paycheck)?

And I'm willing to place a large bet that most of us would choose to get some plastic surgery, if we had the disposable income. I know I would, though I have been almost morally opposed to it my whole life. How about you?


Tampons and Ramen said...

Cosmopolitan Magazine, geared towards young,working class women. The 23 year old receptionist looking at glossy photos of $1500 dresses...

You aren't rich? Well get yourself into debt so you can appear rich.

Miss $9 per hour receptionist, after gas, transportation costs, clothes for work, lunches, etc., really makes $4 an hour...Now go buy that $22 Mac eyeshadow to look and feel good about yourself. Yep, that eyeshadow cost you 5 hours at your miserable, go nowhere job. 5 hours out of your life, for eyeshadow.

Intrinsic self worth...women have none. Its not intrinsic. Its gotta be developed, and when you got the media and all of culture not on your're gonna lose.

I woke up today, upset because I feel fat. Am I? No.

But not being skinny is damned enough.

Big sigh. Loved your post.

Julie H. Rose said...

Thanks for your comments (and nice to hear from you). This evening, a good friend and I decided that it was indeed time to revive the old slogan "Fat is a Feminist Issue". Unfortunately, right now this'll probably not catch on, what with images of Hillary Clinton in pants suits still dancing in our heads.

But really. Fat days. Bad hair days. Our ever changing subjective (non)reality of our bodies, as women. . .well, this has got to stop!