My question this morning is: how do we find worth in something greater than our circumstances? How can we live with a sense that we are a part of something greater than our individual agendas? Our culture doesn’t teach us that. Our culture teaches us to be self-occupied and egotistical – completely consumed with our circumstances. It’s the disease of our nation. And we thrive on it. I know a lot of people who aren’t happy. Or at least they aren’t happy for long. Most people ride a roller coaster of reactions to what happens to them in any given day. In America, this is compounded by our affluence. We really don’t know what real suffering is! When asked about work, we complain, “Oh today was horrible!” When asked why, we mention things like, “I couldn’t finish my Excel spreadsheet because my email inbox was overflowing and my Blackberry just wouldn’t stop ringing!” or “It took forever to get my special order latte this morning, someone just had to get in a car accident and that put me behind schedule all day!” Obviously, I’m being facetious, but we have to admit we generally only have “small” problems.
If I remember correctly, the etymology of the word “happiness” comes from “happenings” – events in life that produce a specific emotion. In other words, the emotions of “happy” people rise and fall according to what “happens” to them. We live lives of reaction. If, of course, you have to perfect life, then you’ll always be happy. But remember, we’re the same people that complain if our dry cleaning isn’t ready for pickup. Our lives suffer at the hand of our circumstances. Our treatment of others, our attitudes, and personal worth rises and falls on the praises or criticisms of acquaintances and co-workers – people that really have little bearing on who we truly are. Yet, we let the actions of others and the “grind” of life mold us into people we don’t want to be.
I like history a lot, so I like to study how we came to believe in the ideologies we value as a nation today. One of the more fascinating ones to date is the idea of “self-esteem.” Now, when I say self-esteem, I mean the general ability to evaluate ourselves and have that self-image affect our behaviors and moods. We live in a culture that values the idea of a healthy self-esteem, and rightfully so. We spend a tremendous amount of time securing the self-worth of children in our educational systems, our governmental programs, and through non-profit organizations.
So, where do people go when looking for worth? Well, since the rise of the Human Potential Movement in the 60s, we most often seek healthy self-esteem in our value as human beings. By developing our potential as humans, we can achieve the quality of life that we desire. We can be fulfilled and content and…well…happy. And though psychologists go into more complex forms of self-image, this is the idea that drives the popular movement towards happiness. In other words, this is the “Dr. Phil” version. So, we grow up with the idea that we should think well of ourselves and recognize our merit as individuals with valid hopes and dreams. Everything we need to live a happy and fulfilled life is already present in us.
But after 40 years, we’re beginning to see the reality of that paradigm. In 2004, the American Psychological Association put out a report that challenged that idea. After surveying 600 people from the ages of 50 to 90, they determined that many of the individuals had “high” self-esteem but said they were unhappy. They knew they were smart, talented, resourceful, and educated. But they felt they had missed something along the way – some set of goals they didn’t meet. In other words, though they felt comfortable with who they were, they recognized that all the things they had accomplished were of little significance outside of the praise and accolades they received at the time. Even those with “healthy” self-esteem are slaves to their circumstances.
And here’s what we can learn from that: the idea that we possess within ourselves those qualities that will ultimately make us happy is false. It’s a self-defeating model because it attempts to derive worth and value from a source that always fails. Society tells us to be happy with who we are and then barrages us with qualifiers to that self-worth: education, credentials, social connections and the like. You are only as good as your ability to out-perform the next guy. That’s why people ride the roller coaster of life reacting to the changes that come our way. And though none of those things are necessarily bad, we give far more value to them than they actual give back to us…and it creates a constant reminder that we will never measure up to the standard to which we are held. Reputation, status, financial stability, high levels of education, physical attractiveness, athletic prowess, even personal integrity leaves us empty. And because we’re empty, we grasp and claw and hold on to whatever circumstances validate who we are: a job, a community position, money, our children, our spouse, even the reputation of our church. But when change comes, we’re devastated – because the familiar is gone and our security is threatened. In the end, change is something we can’t believe in. If we do believe in it, we won’t for long.