What Are You Worth?
Back in high school, my classmates and I were given (more than once, if I’m not mistaken) an “ethical dilemma” to think about and discuss. It went something like this:
A ship is sinking. There are 10 survivors: a pregnant woman, a lifeguard, two recently married young adults, a senior citizen who has 15 grandchildren, an elementary school teacher, 13-year-old twins, a veteran nurse, and the captain of the ship. There is only 1 lifeboat, and it will hold only 6 people. Who would you allow into the lifeboat?
I hated this exercise.
In the highly unlikely event that, as a New Jersey teenager, I should find myself in this situation, I would, I suppose, make the decisions that needed to be made. But was it really necessary to think about it just then? When there were so many more important things to ponder, like when the new Springsteen album was coming out, and where I would go to college? I understood that the idea was to encourage us to define and articulate our values; I just wished we’d been offered a less dramatic, more practical context in which to do so.
Decades later, I hear my clients struggling with similar questions, albeit of a more personal and relevant nature:
Is what I’m doing with my life worthwhile? Am I someone of value?
Fair enough. Taking stock in this way can be a noble and motivating thing. But often when we dig deeper, a slightly different kind of question is revealed:
Am I worth anything? Am I worth enough? Am I worthy (of love, of attention, of respect)?
Many people are afraid that they’re not; they’re ashamed, and believe that they have to do something in order to be valuable and live a life that’s worth something. In other words, people are afraid they’re going to get kicked out of the lifeboat. And they twist themselves up like pretzels, mentally and physically, in an effort to be deserving and make the cut.
If you ask yourself any of these questions about worth, you’ll notice that it’s impossible to answer without using some form of measurement. And there’s the crux of the matter: What yardstick are you using? Who sets the value of what you do or who you are?
Heart of Gold
Let’s have a look at some possible yardsticks.
On the black market, a pair of corneas is worth €17,000 ($19K); you can expect €230,000 ($250K) for a pair of lungs, €115,000 ($130K) for a kidney, and about the same for a liver; your heart will fetch a tidy €470,000 ($500K). You can sell ten inches of blonde hair on the internet for about €400 ($450). From breast milk to bone marrow, plasma to placenta, if your body produces it, there’s a market for it. A conservative estimate of your total worth in this sense would be about €2.7 million ($3 million). Just one hitch: you’d have to be dead to collect it all.
Insurance companies and government agencies are no strangers to putting a value on human life. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency measured an American life as being worth about €8.2 million ($9M), while the Food and Drug Administration set the figure at €7.3 million ($8M), and the Federal Aviation Authority and the Department of Transportation said €5.5 million ($6M).
When awarding compensation to families who lost loved ones on 9/11, the U.S. government estimated how much a victim would have earned over his or her lifetime had the planes never crashed. That meant a young banker’s family qualified for a much higher award than an older window washer’s family. Whether you flip burgers, farm potatoes, or fly a plane, your abilities have worth, but that worth varies wildly depending on your age, gender, experience, geographical location, and more. Just ask the teacher in Nepal who earns €105 a month ($115) as compared his or her counterparts in Australia (€5,500 or $6,000) and the U.S. (€2,275 or $2,500).
Make Your Mama Proud
The most insidious yardsticks may be those that don’t come with a number attached: the ideas about worth that you inherit from your parents, learn from your teachers or mentors, absorb from your peers, culture, or religion. The ones that say your life has more value if you have children, or dozens of friends. That you’re a worthy person if you stay close to home – or wander far from it; if you work hard and play by the rules – or take shortcuts, beat the system, live outside the lines.
The problem isn’t that such values exist, but that we’re unaware of their existence and how much we dance to their tune. We try to please based on criteria that we rarely question, sometimes never even identify. We make decisions through the fearful filter of not wanting to disappoint or hurt someone, be subject to ridicule, be misunderstood, or feel unloved.
If you want to think about worth, if you want to strive to lead a valuable life: great. But please let the measure of value be your own. For me, in the grand scheme of things, the fact that we are here in human form is both a miracle and a tiny drop in an unfathomable ocean. The only value of the wondrous fleeting fact of your existence is the value you give it.
Wielding your own yardstick takes courage, and may come more easily if you can manage to believe that you are already full and complete as you are. Not perfect; not finished; not full as in full of yourself; not complete as in closed to newness. But complete like a piano with all its keys. Full like a sail in the wind.
One needs to make room for one’s own fullness. How do you do that? I’m tempted to say slow down, but slowness isn’t always the answer. Sometimes fullness needs speed, or movement, or chaos. You make room by paying attention to that still place within you from which all movement comes. Attention to your breathing, to your muscles, and to letting go of what’s not necessary. Attention to your thoughts and beliefs, so you can hear the things you’re telling yourself, and decide if you want to continue to do so. You make room by asking a different question: not What am I worth? but What’ve I got, and have I made room for it? Learning bit by bit just how many notes your instrument can play. Daring to sail with your full press of canvas.
Illustration: The Stages of Life (Die Lebensstufen), Caspar David Friedrich, 1835
Sign up for The Attentive Body newsletter and get Elaine’s blog, events, book reviews, and much more in your inbox at the start of every month, free and spam-less.