This post follows on from the earlier one “Facing the void”. Although the idea of confronting our limitations and feelings of powerlessness could feel depressing, actually, I think it can be a deeply hopeful thing to do. So I’m sticking with it…
So, here are my questions to myself: When I stop, and cannot do anything of value; when I am unable to be useful, who am I? Do I have any intrinsic worth? Even if I “know” in theory that all life has worth, do I really believe it about my own life?
Many people are coming up against these questions for the first time, because of the pandemic. This is territory I am familiar with. Just under five years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Instantly almost everything about my life changed. Although other people adapted their expectations of me pretty quickly, it took longer for me to adapt my expectations of myself. It took me about three months to really let go and stop working completely, for example.
My actions, my identity and my sense of self-worth have been strongly shaped by my desire to be useful for a looooong time. But because of my experiences, I now question that.
During that year, I had a lot to face. Including learning to break tasks like getting out of bed down into tiny, manageable steps. Everything took ages. Surviving became my only big goal, and each day presented many different challenges.
I was off work pretty much for a whole year while I had chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, which amazingly over 9 months managed to eradicate the cancer. Then I began hormone therapy to minimise the chances of the cancer returning.
One of the many challenges during my cancer treatment was my gathering sense of doom about the political direction of the UK and the world in general, and my sense of utter powerlessness in the face of it all. One time, I arrived home from a long weekend in hospital to the news that we were going to use drones to bomb Syria. On seemingly rather inadequate evidence and threatening the lives of many innocent citizens of that country. I was so angry! I’d spent the weekend working with doctors and nurses and all the hospital staff to try to preserve my own life, only to find our politicians had sat in their comfy seats in the House of Commons and decided to remove the lives of many innocent people. I was livid.
I am sure that many factors played into that political decision, not least the fact that Syria is a long way away from the UK, and we have this chronic tendency to value the lives of people overseas less than our own. But I think there’s another, deeper story at work here too. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I don’t really believe my own life is valuable, I won’t really believe that the life of any other living being (human, animal, plant) is really valuable, either. Not really. This is why I think it’s really important for us – all of us – to actually face these questions, rather than avoiding them out of fear.
In a Zoom meeting recently, a colleague said, “People are afraid, because they can no longer define themselves by what they consume”. I, for one, have been astonished at how little I’ve purchased since the lockdown. Now, I’m wondering what I used to spend money on! Do we really want to be sleepwalking into a situation where we measure our own worth only by what we do, or where we define who we are mainly by what we buy? Really?
If you, like me, know someone who has died recently either from COVID 19 or from other causes, I doubt very much that you will be thinking their life was defined by what they bought or even what they did to earn money, however laudable their work might have been. As a friend used to say to me, “I’m not going to lie on my death bed wishing I’d spent more time at work.” The reality of our own mortality is something we can befriend as a perspective-giver sometimes.
I am aware of the massive challenges our economy faces now. But I would contend that the world economy faces those challenges, not just our country. And that it is surely high time for us to find a better, fairer way of distributing wealth or trading with one another for what we need, anyway? In times of crisis, the gift economy emerges beautifully, creatively, and money – these coins/notes/figures on a computer screen – seems actually worthless. What intrinsic worth do figures on a screen have? None. Even the coins are only really worth what you could make with them if you melted them down.
I want to offer some reassurance to anyone who feels afraid to confront their doubts about their own worth. Life is extraordinary. It is a sacred gift. And, perhaps unlike those coins, every living being has deep intrinsic worth. These things are not just beliefs to me. They are facts. Or at the very least, I think they are beliefs that carry the same weight of truth as facts do. May you catch a glimpse of your own worth today, whether you are in a busy and “useful”, “doing” phase of life, or in an inactive time where you are feeling powerless.