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 or achievement in a career.
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. [↩]
I think the incredible uniqueness of an individual’s life experience gives it inherent value.
Whatever you have experienced in your life here on Earth is unique and cannot be duplicated or even recorded just because there are so many variables.
^ I suppose you can argue the same for a kitty cat’s life.
All this happened once, and cannot and will not happen again. That’s pretty cool!
“I think the incredible uniqueness of an individual’s life experience gives it inherent value.” This is a concept that resonates with me, but one that I’ve only recently begun to appreciate. Is it something you’ve always “felt”, or something you learned along the way?
Still; even if I recognize that human (or feline) life is quite a special phenomenon in the universe, it’s hard for me to completely agree with the sentiment that uniqueness can give something meaning or value. It’s hard for me to come up with any examples, so perhaps it’s a reflection/projection of my own view, cause I feel like a unique person yet this fact alone isn’t enough for me to have feelings of inherent value.
Not sure if I’ve always felt that way, but I can think back to mid teens when I started recording daily events with the idea that they will never happen again and no one else witnessed it or felt it the way I did, and writing it down creates a permanent record that the universe is presumably backing up. Like the “posterity” concept in Tenet!
Also, same reason I started the blog and hey that’s how we met :)
It might be that I’m just creating spam and the universe is annoyed it has to witness and manage it, but hey that also feels cool and fun!
Wow. I’ve just started to realize some of this stuff myself, and am just starting to realize the fundamental of a lot of things I was trying to work on or heal with is insecurity of not feeling enough, inappropriate to life, all the deficit of love conditional approval stuff you’ve described. I feel so heard. I feel like I am understanding myself and I feel a camaraderie seeing the same sort of thoughts a couple of days as I started to think them. Thank you for sharing your experience in this blog, I think I will find much help here. I read your other post about needing to do things with people and that’s something I’ve struggled with for a longe time, and just started to see in a light of self worth.
I found your blog from the document you posted on healing separation, something I found my concept of a break was evolving into as I entered one and started exploring myself with more space to feel the vulnerability. Thank you for posting that as well, it has given me much guidance tonight
Wishing you well
Thank you for sharing your experience with me as well. Knowing that I’m not alone in this unsettling feeling provides me with a sense of comfort that I would never be able to find otherwise, as I’ve never met anyone else who’s suffered the same existential dread.