Strangers often tell me their life story. The theme goes like this: Something or someone hurt me so I do these things which hurt me or others to try and fix, erase or control how worthless or unworthy I feel. They tell me about their important, extraordinary accomplishments or list of personal slights. The range of self-destruction expands across two major extremes: great, empty, success or great, empty, failure. The goal is the same either way; to try and punish the people or circumstances which caused us pain, through our success or failure as a means of reclaiming our lost sense of worth. I say ‘our’ because I’m unabashedly in the same club; we’re called human. But there’s more to it if we come to a place of shameless awareness and compassion for ourselves and each other. We’re still human, we might even continue doing things that hurt us or someone else, but we’ve come to realize our inherent, universal value in the process. We do our work, face our pain and reclaim our sense of collective worth. We can relax, be kind, stop hurting, start forgiving and begin living more authentically. It can be done. But how?
The most recent stranger who told me his life story is still trying to save his family, prove his worth and earn love and acceptance. He showed me his award winning art, along with pictures of his beautiful children surfing in exotic locations while listing their prestigious alma maters . He told me about his past triumphs, how much money and status he’d achieved, and how hollow he felt regardless of his past or current bank balance. He told me how many books read and the current goals he’s working on to improve and refine himself. He showed me his goal lists and the thoughts he’d taken note of in his special phone. He asked me what my goals were too but only to show me how grander and far-reaching his goals were. I was fully present with him which sometimes achieves validation, yet he persisted for nearly 5 hours striving to prove to a complete stranger that he is good. Why? Because, the hurtful things that happened to him caused him to believe he was no good. He shared about his distant, well-to-do alcoholic parents and never quiet feeling fully seen as their child. Our parents make us and we sort of need them to help us establish our first general sense of alrightness. When they can’t or don’t do this (usually because someone couldn’t or wouldn’t love them) or if they love us too much and we don’t believe them, we feel worth less. To try and avoid this terrible feeling we do all kinds of things like try to get people to sleep with us, invent very important things, cheat, eat all the food, eat none of the food, sell drugs, do drugs, sell ourselves, have a baby, have lots of babies (who we resent because it didn’t get us what we thought it would), get tattoos in sexy places, cheer for the winning team, pretend to live in our car, intentionally dress a certain way to be perceived a certain way. We work very hard to manipulate others perceptions of us to get our most important need met. One common way we achieve this is by sharing our sad stories, convincing everyone that our story is the saddest so we should do the least but get the most, like that 50’s show Queen for a Day.
The show was 3 women standing on a stage. Each woman would tell her sad story about her husband dying in the war, being left with the children and then maybe her mother dies and one of the children has a health issue and now she’s a damsel in great distress, and hopefully in more distress than the other two damsels on the show so she can win the prize. In between Cool Whip commercials the audience would decide who was the saddest case; she would win a crown, a bouquet of roses and maybe a new Frigidaire. Lifetime t.v channel gets all their scripts from this old show. In America, to be the prize winner means to be biggest the blameless victim; our prize is no responsibility or accountability. The reason we want no responsibilities is because we’ve created too many, have lost or never learned our skills for living life and no one seems to have gotten loved the right way. In our pursuit of freedom, we’ve lost so much.
I had a friend in graduate school who’d grown up on shores of a beach in India. He spent his days playing, owned next to nothing and felt very happy and free. When his father passed suddenly his mother moved the family to be with relatives in America. He said it was then that he learned about money and became very sad. He said it wasn’t until he went to America that he realized his family was poor. He felt burdened with the responsibility of now having to work and provide for his family, as the oldest child. Everywhere he looked were signs telling him to earn more and achieve greater. His love for his mother and siblings was now being compared against his efforts to afford them good things, rather than all of the other ways he might demonstrate love and care for them.
In America we cultivate credit rather than character. What’s in your wallet? If plastic cannot buy you something to prove your worth, you’re marked down. We put people on clearance the same way dairy farms treat expired milk cows. Speaking of cows, what are the markers of worth in America? Brands. We tell people how much we’re worth through the things we wear, drive, own, eat or live in. Looking a certain way, having a particular color of skin, type of hair, accent, what you like or dislike, what kind of music you listen to, which social medias and aps you use, what kind of water you drink, where you shop for food, everything external is placed on display for people to see so they know your value. Conscious or unconscious. Capitalism is essentially an exploitation of our most basic, biological need. Buy me love.
Companies hire media and marketing strategists who’re paid millions of billions of dollars to learn what motivates our spending better than we might know ourselves. It’s their job to convince us their product will give us a sense of power, efficacy, safety, exclusivity, purpose, joy, fun, hotness, connection and whatever else they’ve discovered we’re seeking. Every ad is targeting every desire a person can have and connecting it to a product or service we can buy. The ads convince us without those products or services we’re the lazy loser who missed out, the one who’s forgotten, didn’t try hard enough, isn’t having as much fun, the one who’s unwanted, unworthy, unloved. I had a friend whose 9 year old daughter declared she didn’t want to spend a weekend with her father unless it consisted of “something bought from the store, like the mall. I only like things if they’re just boughten.” Since she was 9 we can overlook the fact that ‘boughten’ isn’t a word, but my guess is learning at school is still not a huge priority. Who can see our brain anyway, right? She also had a habit of attempting to recreate scenes from commercials when we took her places like theme parks and chain restaurants. She wanted to live out the peak moments she saw on t.v and would attempt to force us into scripts which mirrored the happy family she was longing for. She’s not the only kid who responds to commercials that way. Those media messsges are expertly crafted to throw us all into reckless, irrational fits of desire. This is a mere toe in the kiddie pool of the consumption tsunami that is western media. Just ask Jean Kilbourne.
When we add traumatic experiences or any form of ‘otherness’, disability, discrimination, marginalization to the petri dish of American culture, we get dysfunctions of epic proportions which more than a few have chosen to profit from. We came here to be free and instead stand on a history of enslavement and oppression. We enslave and oppress each other with arbitrary labels decided by a very small, homogeneous few. We erased cultural values which serve a multitude of life-giving functions and replaced them with brands, classifications, strata, titles, lies. Even resilience has become something you can buy. You cannot buy character. It’s something we each have to take the time to cultivate and practice. Like changing any habit, cultivating character requires us to give up those instantly gratifying ‘fixes’ for a much deeper satisfaction. A tough sell in our western world of instant gratification. Why bother when I can buy ‘love and happiness’ for a dollar, right? #cokehappiness #imlovinit #mickjagger
Recently I sat on a 4 hour flight next to a woman from Vietnam. She told me her life story while her son played on a laptop in the window seat. She’d lived in the states for nearly 20 years, had been raised with a great deal of humility and poverty. She was living in New York on 911 and walked over 30 miles in a sea of terrified people to get home. Her eyes filled with tears as she recounted the horrific events of that day. She told me how she later met her American husband, how she didn’t really like white women, but I was so easy to talk to. She thought most Americans “act so entitled.” She commented on the lack of values in Americans, how we seem to have no self-discipline, we don’t discipline our children, we leave our marriages too easily, we give up too quickly or strive too greatly and have little peace in our day to day lives. I listened while nibbling from a bag of United Buddha Bowl Popcorn (Which is delicious by the way. Thank you United. See how ultra-spiritual I am?) Then she showed me pictures of her family in between her 3 trips to the restroom. She told me how much she loved them and that Americans “say ‘I love’ too much, you say it for everything, and then it has no meaning. When I say it to my son, my mother…I say because it’s special and I mean it. Here, you say you love everything. What does it mean? Nothing.” Then she told me that while she loves her son, who was sitting right next to her, he was a lot of work and she often felt tired as a parent and would certainly never want any more children. “It’s so much responsibility! I feel so tired! I get no free time!” I kept eating my popcorn and listening. She went on to say she was contemplating divorce but planning to wait “till my son graduates high school…he deserves to grow up with both parents like I did.”
It was confusing, but not shocking. She was attempting to describe the goodness she’d derived from her culture of origin, which she occasionally did by comparing the ‘us and them’, but then expressed beliefs and plans which essentially made her one and the same. At first I felt a little angry. I’d just wanted to spend the flight eating my snack and reading my non-thinking book. Instead I was called into an internal, cross-cultural moral conversation about the needs and motivations of all of human existence. I appreciated that she felt comfortable enough to tell me she avoided friendships with white women because she thought we were all “fake and entitled”. I think we need some degree of transparency in which to share and challenge our perceptions. Maybe by listening to her without taking her words personally I was able to shift some of her thoughts about white women? Maybe by looking objectively at everyone and everything, we could challenge other perspectives too?
When society sets up policies and practices that dictate our worth to us it’s easy to view ourselves as passive, powerless, worthless or unworthy. We reinforce the structures that devalue us when we participate in racism, exclusion, hatred, classism, discrimination, vengeful comparisons of appearance, weight, status, education or other forms of self-rightness over ‘other’ or different rightness. Harmful things done to us, whether by a government, another culture of people, or simply a family member possess no real authority unless we fail to challenge that authority. This is my point and my invitation; if you find yourself feeling worth less or unworthy, question the authority of that perspective. One of the so-called enemies in my life once gave me some very good advice: instead of trying to be right, be curious. For what it’s worth.