Thursday, February 5, 2009


"What we must decide is how we are valuable rather than how valuable we are." -- Edgar Z. Friedenberg.

I've thought about this quote for a while and wrestled with the concept long before I stumbled on the quote. Perhaps it is because my earning potential has always been low in a society that assigns great value to that. Perhaps it is because I spent most of a couple of decades raising children and found, despite much language to the contrary, that society doesn't value that at all. Individuals might, society does not. And, perhaps most importantly, it is because I have periodically bought in to society's view of value and under-valued myself. And, given the current economic disaster and ever increasing unemployment, I wonder how many others will find themselves on the low end of society's barometer of worth and how it will affect their view of themselves.

Generally, many of us, seem to assign value to ourselves and our lives based on what we do for work. And the value of that work is frequently based on the amount of money it brings in. As a society, we tend to think in terms of earning potential rather than job satisfaction. And, as a result, many of us spend a large portion of our lives laboring away at something we do not like and frequently hate. We slave away for 50 weeks out of the year so that we can have 2 weeks of vacation where we try to do all the living we cannot allow ourselves to do the rest of the time.

When I was a stay-at-home mother, I keenly felt my financial vulnerability and societal invisibility. Leave it to Beaver not withstanding, staying at home with one's children does not give one stability or respect in our society. Despite the fact that I did much more than "just" housework, it was difficult to feel as though I had done enough to justify my lack of income. And, in my experience at least, all sorts of people think that they are within their rights to express their opinion on what one is doing or not doing. Mothers, in particular, frequently find themselves in no win situations. Not long after my first son was born, I was having lunch with his godmother, who had also just had a baby. I had gone back to work because we couldn't do without my salary. I got keel hauled by just about everyone with an opinion for "leaving my child" to go make money. Coincidentally, my friend, who was staying at home with her son, got blasted for not being out in the workplace pursuing a career. It was a classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don't.

And now I wonder about the millions of people who are losing their jobs and how they will cope with their sense of self-worth in the absence of gainful employment, perhaps even losing their homes. Whether one is on the assembly line or Wall Street, how does one reassign value to their lives when a major focus of that value is removed, especially when those around us focused on it, too? It will not be easy, but, I suspect, it calls for a huge shift in how we think about ourselves and how we respond to each other.

When I was working on my bachelor's degree in philosophy, I was frequently asked "what are you going to do with that?" I know a poet who is frequently the butt of jokes and suggestions that they get "realistic." And we've all heard the jokes about waiters who are really actors. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could refrain from passing judgment and criticism on the honest efforts of others? And wouldn't it be lovelier still, if all of us based our self-worth on a different criteria than occupation and earning potential? But how to go about doing that when the tide all too often flows the opposite way?

So the question is How Am I Valuable? If you make sandwiches for a living and paint gorgeous works of art at home, which one do you think holds the essence of your true worth? If you spend 8 hours a day putting together widgets and every other moment you have cultivating beautiful roses? If you push papers until your mind goes numb from 9 to 5, and then volunteer in a nursing home? If you are completely unemployed, but tell fantastic bedtime stories? If you do anything at all, but manage to have a smile for every human being who passes in front of you?

For me, I've come to realize that, except for my rather skimpy financial situation, that there is very little I would want to change about my life. I find fulfillment in creating things, either physically or with words. I relish the opportunity to be fully present to my friends and those whom I love. I'm a good friend, good mother, good writer and good with my hands. I think and feel deeply. How could I possibly doubt my value?


Chris Tolomei (alicethelma) said...

Funny...I was just thinking how satisfied I am with my life except for the money thing. I'm flat broke. But except for not having any money, I am quite happy.

Lorien said...

Oh. My. Goodness, I think I will have to print this out and keep it. Because have been struggling with this for awhile...don't want to wash my head at you, but suffice it to say, once again, you hit a home run. Thanks.

The Python said...

Thought provoking and very true. The most valuable people in society are often least valued - teachers, policemen, nurses, while the least useful are massively overvalued - footballers, celebrities, the rich and famous.

The Christian take is that we have no choice but to be in the world, but do not have to be of the world. Essentially, we need to have a different system of values. These include love and respect for all people, empathy for the downtrodden, a helping hand for those less fortunate than ourselves. It also involves valuing ourselves and seeing ourselves as different.

Al of which is very difficult in a world which pushes false values and seduces us with advertising and the false god of consumerism.

Carmen said...

Happy Birthday. It seems you really know how to enjoy it.