In recent years I’ve been ruminating on the question of whether or not humans have inherent value, perhaps because my suicidal ideation causes me to wonder whether life itself is worthless. The subjectivity of such a idea means I don’t ask anyone for an answer, but I do probe for opinions. My friends have all told me that they believe people are inherently valuable; or, at the very least, they know they’re valuable because they value themselves, even if they can’t say the same about anyone else.
This surprised me at first; I can remember believing that each person is a burden on society who has to earn their place, as soon as I was old enough to understand such a concept1. But a few years ago when I told this to Jesse, he expressed disbelief based on the way he’s observed my treatment of others.
Being challenged about my views by a person I so highly respected certainly gave me pause to reconsider. When I thought about a stranger I might meet on the street, I felt that that life would be a benefit to the world, that that person deserves to be loved, happy, safe, and healthy as much as anyone else simply because they exist. Suddenly, I realized that it was myself whom I believed to be worthless, and I extended this belief to others to soothe any pains I had over such a thought. I didn’t despair about my worthlessness if everyone else had just as little value.
I can trace this warped worldview to my childhood, when my parents treated me simply as an extension of their lives. They made it clear that their love was purely conditional, based on my obedience, achievements at school/work, friends, romantic partners, and how those all compared to others. I was always working from a deficit of love, trying to earn their approval and affection by doing the “right” thing, which was defined as what they wanted2.
This is no more apparent than when trying to show myself compassion (or perhaps magnanimity would be the better word). Imagining myself as another person before me, every time I say to him “You deserve to be happy”, my mind can’t help but finish the sentence with “…as long as you…” as if that happiness is contingent upon some level of performance at a workplace.
Unfortunately, awareness doesn’t resolve the issue. Even though I had an epiphany that helped me understand the fallacy of my worldview, trying to suddenly believe that I have an inherent value seems as implausible as finding a random pebble on the ground and believing that it’s worth the same as a polished gemstone. No wonder the opinion I have of myself has been so greatly influenced by others; I’ve been relying on the approval of my peers to give me the value I so desperately desire3.
So if the worth of a person is subjective and there are no absolute truths, how is it possible for me to genuinely believe that I have value after a lifetime of believing that I don’t?
- I’m sure that growing up in a capitalist society that views anyone who doesn’t work (including seniors) as lazy and worthless contributed to this belief. [↩]
- Not only would this cause me to feel like I had to constantly earn my happiness, this would also cause me to believe any difficulties I faced were my fault — that I must be to blame if someone didn’t find me attractive, or I must have deserved anything I suffered. [↩]
- I eventually learn that external forms of validation like this are unreliable and generally unhealthy. [↩]