“The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values.”—William S. Burroughs
“Even Socrates, who lived a very frugal and simple life, loved to go to the market. When his students asked about this, he replied, “I love to go and see all the things I am happy without.”― Jack Kornfield
We live in a world where we are confused about what’s important. The emphasis on values of wealth and independence overshadow our values to nourish and care for what matters most (Madeline Levine, PhD, author of “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids”). In fact, the notion of what is the most important thing at any given time is something that we take for granted. Regularly asking ourselves what is truly important to us is not something that we have learned to consciously and methodically do. We picked our values regarding what’s important from the narratives in our families and culture, and it was seldom a participatory event. In this piece, I want to explore what gets in the way of us taking a sincere look at what matters most, thus failing at taking skillful and responsive action.
The central question I am exploring is: How come we tend to some things and not to others? For instance, when we think about being sick with the flu, it is easy to recognize the need to do something to take care of ourselves. We need our physical health to move, work, and do all sorts of basic functions that allow us to stay alive. However, when our ailment lies in a more subtle place, like our mind, we have a much harder time in addressing it. In fact, this also applies to various physical conditions like malnourishment, poor physical health, and all sorts of issues that we don’t perceive as
having an immediate impact on our daily functioning. We all know about the diet, spiritual practice, or exercise plan we want to follow but we end up putting in the back burner. We all know about those habits that have negative impacts on our lives and the lives of others, yet we continue to ignore.
To be fair, there is a wide range of beliefs, values, unresolved psychological issues, and even personality traits that operate together regarding what we choose to address. In this article I do not mean to write about all these interacting conditions. I will focus mainly around beliefs about ourselves and on the values we choose to emphasize.
I would like to explore one of the most important aspects impacting our choices, and is our notion of self-worth. It’s beyond the scope of this writing piece to map how we come to cut short our ability to fully love ourselves. Still, most of us, to various degrees, hold parts of ourselves that are confused about what self-love and self-worth means. These parts show up in those moments when we say things impulsively and without thinking about our impact. It happens when we indulge in that extra whatever thing we don’t really need and it’s not really going to make us feel any better in the long run. It happens when we, knowing or unknowingly, neglect any of the myriad needs we have. And perhaps, it is most evident, when we hold ourselves back from manifesting our potential.
A fundamental aspect of self-worth is in regards to its relationship to self-care. The way we think about our self-worth, will have an impact on how we choose to nourish ourselves. As a therapist, one of the most evident ways I notice people’s self-worth and self-care is in the way they treat their emotions, in particular, their difficult ones. During our early ages we learned to cope with difficult emotions in many ways. Perhaps it was by avoiding them, projecting them the onto others, denying them, distracting ourselves, and so on. Here I don’t want to make the point that people should not utilize those coping strategies. A more useful argument would be that, though we learned a lot of ways to avoid painful feelings, we did not really learn how to meet and learn from those feelings. Coping with them helped us function in the short-term. But by only doing that, we loose the ability to realize our capacities in the long-term.
But how does distracting myself actually relate to lack of self-worth? It becomes clear when we slow down and turn our curiosity towards our relationship to a negative feeling. When we feel frustrated, lonely, or hurt, what is the emotional overlay we place on it? Most likely is another negative emotion. It could be aversion, more frustration, fear, confusion, or any other emotion that is about pushing away that primary feeling or experience we are having. Other times we may wallow in the feeling as a means to manipulate others and/or avoid responsibility. It is in that relationship to our emotional pain that we can truly find the extent of our self-worth. It is by taking our time to study who we are when our mind is at odds with itself where we can discover a new way of being. It is by meeting our experience in it’s most tender form that we have a chance to manifest unconditional love towards ourselves and others.
The argument I am making here is that our self-worth reveals itself in how we treat our suffering. And the more compassion we have towards ourselves, the more wholesome choices we make. I want to quote famous Zen Master and Nobel Pice winner Tich Nhat Hanh to help me make this point:
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”
What would happen if, on top of using our usual coping strategies, we also take some times to utilize the power of heart and mind to transform? What would happen if we give ourselves the opportunity to fully utilize our capacity for self-knowledge and self-love? To meet each moment and emotion with awe? Could it be that we find Freedom? Awakening? Belonging? Abundance? Could it be that the things we value begin to change? Will we become like socrates who relished in his feeling of lacking to need so many useless things? Could our thirst for materialism change for a thirst for service? I like to think so.