These last few weeks have revealed to me just how much we are all desperately, subconsciously, aggressively, or fearfully trying to prove to others that we are valuable. I’m surrounded by researchers who want the government or a private funder to find their research valuable enough for financial investment. I’m surrounded by graduate students who want their professors and peers to think they are smart and deserving of a place in academia. And I’m immersed in the world of social media where everyone (including myself) portrays a filtered reality that shows life in a decidedly rosier view. It may be the deepest human need to be seen and confirmed as valuable.
That “seen and confirmed” part is tricky, though, because it requires the consent and participation of people completely beyond our control. We can no more make someone value us than we can make the sun rise in the east and set in the west. To maintain good mental health, we have to fight against the deeply-rooted beliefs that a). we are only valuable if other people think we are, and b). we can somehow convince people we are valuable. What is out of our control should not be in our focus of concern. (For our own well-being!!)
Beyond that, however, we can also work to being the kind of people who provide confirmation of value to others. We can love people in such a way that they don’t doubt their value to us. And the more of us who value others implicitly, the more objective that valuation will feel to others as they get that confirmation from a multitude of sources, and the more they will believe that they are valuable. (Something I believe to be true of everyone.)
I’m sure some people need the push of having to prove themselves to produce their best work, but I wonder how much good, true, important work is lost or at least tarnished because we focus attention not on the work at hand, but on how it and we will be perceived. I wonder what could be accomplished if everyone starts from a position of knowing and believing they are valuable, and offering that to others.
I could see how this would be particularly relevant and powerful in situations of oppression. Oppressed people are more likely to believe they either deserve to be oppressed, or cannot do anything to rise above it. What if we gave oppressors not just the verbal encouragement and confirmation that they deserve better, but fought alongside them to defeat their oppressors, demonstrating the strength of our conviction?
Further, we value oppressors by not letting them get away with behavior that damages others and damages themselves. This is a more complicated kind of valuing, and can be taken to its own oppressive extremes. (Evangelical Christianity’s proclamation that gay people are cultural oppressors, as well as EC’s general response to the perceived “sin” of homosexuality, comes to mind.) Nonetheless, when done right and well, helping people adhere more and more to the Good always advances their own well-being, especially when we do not dogmatically assume our definition of the Good is the perfect definition. (Whole other can of worms, this is.)
I don’t want to claim this is somehow a panacea for the world’s massive, complex, nuanced problems, but I do think a right appreciation and confirmation of our own and others’ inherent value would have incredible force for good in the world and has its place in all situations in which we find ourselves. Maybe it won’t add transformative good; maybe it will. But any freedom we can give people from the chain of external validation is some kind of good that we add to the world. I’ll take it.