What Are You Worth?

By Posted in - Life on November 1st, 2016 What Are You Worth, by Elaine Konopka_The Attentive Body

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

Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in body awareness and pain management, as well as Breath Lab breathing workshops.

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(16) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Cindy - Reply

    November 6, 2016 at 14:51

    Interesting. I’d give up my seat for sure! I’ve had an enjoyable lucky happy life all things considered. Way more than half full and I’m happy to be done and let someone who really needs to be here longer try to survive. It’s not altruism or lack of self worth because I enjoy life but I’ve done a lot and would be happy to be done in place if someone who had yet to experience more or who had the power and influence to effect more in the works than I do. I’m also pretty worn out. So it’s ok for me to lay it down! ;) but it would also depend on the status of a certain feline in my life!

    • Elaine - Reply

      November 6, 2016 at 14:59

      That’s mighty generous of you, Cindy! But what if it wasn’t a matter of giving up your own spot, but choosing who would be allowed in the boat? (The exercise didn’t mention cats — would’ve been interesting!)

  • Sarah - Reply

    November 5, 2016 at 16:31

    I don’t always take the time to read your newsletter, but when I do, it’s always worth my while. Thank you.

    • Elaine - Reply

      November 5, 2016 at 20:52

      Thank you for saying so, Sarah. I know you have high standards, so it means a lot.

  • Bernadette - Reply

    November 2, 2016 at 17:35

    STO LAT! Attentive Body!
    How can it be 1 year already?!? So thrilled you are not letting that little monster voice win.
    So happy you are writing so beautifully. So proud to call you dear Sister.
    PS. Henceforth, my personal doubts shall be be conquered by visualizing that FULL keyboard.
    Dziekuje bardzo….xo ….and please keep on keeping on!

    • Elaine - Reply

      November 2, 2016 at 18:15

      A hundred years may be asking too much, dear sister. But I’d like to see where this all goes, so I’m not done yet. Happy you’re on board! xo

  • Grace - Reply

    November 2, 2016 at 15:33

    Piling on to say you are doing a wonderful job with this blog and your newsletter. Don’t doubt for a minute that it’s being appreciated, even if your readers don’t often step up to say, lovely lovely lovely. But we think it.

    • Elaine - Reply

      November 2, 2016 at 18:13

      Thank you for saying so, dear Grace. I swear I was not fishing for compliments. But if I know there’s an audience, I’ll do just about anything. Thanks for being out there.

  • Me - Reply

    November 1, 2016 at 16:22

    Yes you may feel that what you are saying has been said before but one tends to forget the past and therefore its important to be reminded every now and then. You always give me something to ponder and a basis to reevaluate my life!

    • Elaine - Reply

      November 1, 2016 at 19:20

      It’s true, we tend to forget, which is sometimes a blessing and sometimes not. I’m happy to be a reminder.

  • Greg - Reply

    November 1, 2016 at 16:11

    Happy anniversary! Please continue, you’re a beautiful writer and person. With each edition, I learn more about the given topic and myself. What magic do you possess that you seem to know what’s relevant in my life each month and serve up the needed content?

    Congratulations on your terrific work!

    • Elaine - Reply

      November 1, 2016 at 19:17

      Greg, there’s a hidden camera in your kitchen. (What did you think ‘attentive’ meant?) ;)
      Thanks so much for your encouragement.

  • Linda Healey - Reply

    November 1, 2016 at 13:31

    Wow, especially wonderful newsletter this month! Your writing is busting out all over — a glory to see. Love the topic and also this month’s Breath Lab theme. Thanks and love. xxxx

    • Elaine - Reply

      November 1, 2016 at 19:16

      Thanks Linda. You’re such an encouragement! Come and breathe with us.

  • Marguerite - Reply

    November 1, 2016 at 10:28

    Thank you Elaine for all those windows you open that trigger new spaces of thinking. Keep on going ! I am waiting for you every month. Happy birthday to the Attentive Body and Here s to you.

    • Elaine - Reply

      November 1, 2016 at 19:14

      Thank you Marguerite!
      I wish you many open windows — doors too!

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