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David Hockney, Munich Olympics, 1971

Building self-esteem –
having people tell you you’re beautiful, appreciated, a good friend,
doing things that confirm you’re intelligent and capable,
the ability to provide yourself with answers and knowledge and material security –
can all be good.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? A hidden premise that goes something like this:
“I’m not beautiful unless someone thinks I am.”
“I’m not intelligent unless I can test myself against some external standard.”

Well, aren’t these premises true? Only half-true.

If you need the externals of people, standardized tests, and material things to gain self-worth, then your worth is not inherent. It will only last as long as the right people, places and circumstances hold their delicate balance. You must forbid yourself from dying alone, in a nursing home, with nothing but a withered old body.

So what you’re left with if all you want is self-esteem is a losing game, or meritocracy. But most people spend their lives focused on these externals, without ever looking inside. Why is that?

If every one of us came into this world as worthy, precious, wonderful, fully present and fully loved for us, then why do we spend most of our lives compensating for some perceived lack? Why all this effort to add onto ourselves?

Are we not good enough? What do you believe?

Do you think, if you and I truly believed we were inherently important and loved, that we would care whether someone was better looking, or smarter or more successful than us? Do people who know they’re beloved look around worry about how their writing, or career, or relationships, or assets, or whatever, matches up with their peers? Do they loathe to be average? Maybe. Or maybe we’re kidding ourselves.

Maybe self-esteem is just the outer shell we get to construct, and the world gets to have its say, too. But what’s beneath that shell? Look through the shell into the core. What do you find there?

Or let me ask the question in a different way: when your shell gets cracked, or a hole is punctured, how is it mended? What inner resources come to fill in the holes and cracks? Or is the shell full of musty air?

And what’s so necessary about a shell anyway? Isn’t it a little backwards to layer armor onto a frail, feeble body and call it strong?

If your shell is empty, will adding more to it really make you happy? Are we supposed to just keep building onto our self-esteem when inside we are empty, disconnected and comatose?

Is our life’s project to garner more praise and admiration? More words and accomplishments? More padding to our outer shell?

Maybe.

But what if instead, we weren’t supposed to add to our armor, our self-esteem. What if instead, we made it our life’s work to tear it down, peel it away piece by piece. Not addition, but subtraction. Not ascent, but descent.

What if?

All that “you’re so independent,” “such a good wife,” “a perfect parent,” “brilliant and funny and kind, and -” all fallen to the ground, dead. Nice sentiments, but essentially worth-less. Words to describe me, but not I. What kind of life would spring forth from that dead shell?

Some of life’s greatest secrets are not answers, but questions. What would your life be like if nothing –
not compliments, insults, failures, successes, achievements, mistakes –
nothing could ever, even come CLOSE to touching your true worth?

Nowadays, a family is simply a network of people who care for each other. It can contain hundreds or two. You can be born into one or build your own. Membership can be gained through genetics, friendship, geographic proximity, work or a shared appreciation.

This post was inspired and largely due to my sister, Joy, who is good at asking important questions.