Did people in The Middle Ages fret about their self-esteem? Did they sit in taverns and wonder aloud to their friends why they didn’t love themselves more? Did they work their farms while daydreaming about the hope of someday having more self-esteem?
See, I rather doubt it. I think perseverating about self-esteem is the calling card of this time, this place and this culture. I think our incessant pondering about self-esteem is the orphan of affluence and leisure. It’s the thing we’re left to do when we lack sufficient access to meaning. I sometimes wonder if our never-ending quest for self-esteem is itself evidence of esteeming ourselves richly. Ridiculously, actually.
Self-esteem. Self-worth. How do human beings come to feel worthwhile? Or, to risk living as if they are worthy, even if they do not yet feel themselves to be?
Some people undertake the quest literally: material worth. He who dies with the most toys wins. They make money. Lots and lots of money. They are good at making money. They tell themselves they will feel worthy when they have a literal, measurable worth. The chief problem with this worldview, of course, is that it is quite savagely exclusive. By this measure of worth, the poor would not be allowed to be worthy. By definition.
(By the way, I didn’t say it was wrong to be good at making lots and lots of money. I just said it was a dubious place to invest the idea of self-worth.)
The other great American notion of human worth is usefulness. I have self-worth if I am useful. For example, if I’m a passenger flying at 38,000 feet on a plane that suddenly loses an engine, it is very useful to have a competent pilot on board. Similarly, if you are suffering an acute bereavement, you will find that I’m very useful to have around.
Usefulness is closely related to competence. And these are common measures for a person’s felt sense of self-worth. Just listen to the chronically unemployed. The frustrations of the disabled. The vague air of depression that sometimes surrounds the newly retired. The alienation of the aging and elderly who can contribute less and less to a community, a neighborhood or a household. Ultimately not able to care for themselves.
So, in the end, usefulness is an important measure of self-worth, but still an incomplete measure. What’s more useless than a newborn? Yet, would we say the baby is worthless? Of course not.
We reach for merit. We hope to become meritorious of worth through the realization of virtue and character. We are generous. Philanthropic. Faithful. Hard-working. We endure. We are kind. We sacrifice. We are humble. We are honest. Etc.
Virtue is a good thing, no doubt. And I, for one, hope to have more character rather than less. Yes, merit can be an important measure of selfworth, but still this path contains a built-in, obvious problem: human beings have an irregular, variable grasp on merit. Human beings make mistakes. They screw up. Sometimes character fails.
I’m saying that, being a card-carrying sinner myself, I hope there is a human worth available in the absence of merit.
Which brings us to intrinsic worth. That there is something about merely being human that should rightly oblige me to respect myself and others. If I breathe, then I have worth. Even if I’m poor. Even if I’m unable to be useful. Even if I lack merit.
Can you consider your intrinsic worth? The idea that some people who love you actually do love you? Not for your money. Not because of your achievements. Not because you can fix the garbage disposal or iron a shirt. Not because you’re morally perfect. But because they love you.
But even intrinsic worth is nigh impossible to realize and enjoy on our own. Do newborns have intrinsic worth? Absolutely. Do newborns know that? Absolutely not. Then how do newborns discover their own intrinsic worth?
Someone has to love them. Touch them. Care for them. Without these things, babies will go crazy. Or die.
“We love because we are first loved,” says the Christian Epistle of I John. Here a religious ‘truth’ is identical to a psychological observation: self-worth does not first belong to the self. Worth is bestowed upon us by love. Our worth is conveyed.
All the worth we could ever need is found as we love and are loved.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)