I know you’re supposed to say that all human life is valuable, and I’m not disputing that. Human life, indeed all life from where I sit, is inherently valuable because life is fleeting and therefore precious. In fact, life itself is a “natural miracle” in the sense that we still don’t fully understand how it came to be, much less how it ever learned to become self-aware. Yet here we are, thinking, and feeling.
Which is to say, I don’t need to posit a Prime Mover in order to find human life valuable. I personally feel that would only cheapen life because it suggests we are only valuable in a derivative sense. I’m not so impressed to hear that we are only valuable because Someone Else liked us and valued us. Nor do I care to hear that we are only valuable because, while wretched and unworthy in and of ourselves, someone was tortured and killed on our behalf so that we could be “redeemed,” made valuable again, thanks to the work of someone other than ourselves. That’s not good news, the way I see it.
I’m not talking about the basic value of human life. I’m asking by what metric we can measure the value and contribution of a man to the world around him? And yes, I know we could broaden the question by asking about humanity in general, men and women included (as well as everything in between because it turns out humanity isn’t so binary as we formerly presumed). But right now I’m asking more about how I, as a man, can measure my own worth to the world I live in.
Rewriting the Script
This is a really big question, and today’s quick note fired off before getting immersed into my work day is only put forth as a discussion opener. It’s a diving off point into a really deep ocean of topics that I hope to explore in the coming months because I have some work to do in this area myself, and I’m not going to stop thinking it through this time until I feel like I’ve gotten to the bottom of some things that have been eating at me whether I knew it or not.
I’ve gone through a number of hard transitions over the last few months and years, some of them chosen and some of them not. And each one has tested my own ability to maintain a healthy and productive perspective on life and on, well, myself. That may strike you as so much useless navel gazing but I’m not convinced that’s the case.
People can go entire lifetimes without ever thinking through these kinds of questions, and maybe they get along just fine. I won’t be the judge of that. But I’m simply not wired that way. I’m wired to try to understand what my life is about and that means trying to figure out how to think about what it is that I’m doing, and what I want this too-brief life to be about.
On that score, I grew up with a set narrative that was handed down to me from a culture I now find lacking in so many ways, and I’m working on rebuilding a narrative that better fits the world as I see it. Just as Buzz Lightyear discovered that his own pre-programmed understanding of himself was based on a fiction and then had to learn to develop his raison d’etre, so I find myself still in the midst of refashioning my own story.
In the original narrative I was given, my worth as a man was determined by two basic things: 1) My ability to provide materially and financially for a family, and 2) My ability to guide and direct (“shepherd”) said family into spiritual matters.
“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8)
I chose to be a teacher, and then later became an atheist. Ponder for just a moment how those two developments would impact my ability to fulfill either one of those requirements, and then consider how that would impact the way I view myself and my worth in the world.
Can you imagine how useless it would make a man feel to grow up being told that he is valuable only insofar as he can make money and lead his family in spiritual matters, but then to find he was lacking in both capacities no matter how hard he threw himself into trying to make those two things work?
Can you also imagine how, after leaving that world and that narrative behind, it would still leave you with an enduring sense that you don’t quite measure up to the standard of who you need to be, or what you need to produce, in order to be of real use to the world?
What Are You Worth?
Men certainly aren’t the only ones who grow up under an oppressive narrative that reduces them to a set of expectations they never seem to be able to live up to. Women, in their own turn, are expected to somehow be perpetual objects of sexual desire, ready to respond to any and every advance from the men who want them while somehow remaining chaste and faithful to the men who claim them as possessions, putting family above all other things including their own happiness or fulfillment (must those always be mutually exclusive?).
Furthermore, as women have fought and clawed their way into the modern marketplace, they too have become increasingly judged according to the financial contribution they make to society. But then again, maybe that’s nothing new for them, either. In a commercial society built on a capitalistic economy, it is those who contribute directly to the financial well-being of institutions and corporations who are valued supremely.
Which means that those who make it their focus to nurture and raise families (whether male or female) become devalued because what they contribute cannot be neatly quantified according to its impact on the bottom lines of the institutions from which everyone is expected to derive their worth. I would argue this is why American society does such a poor job of rewarding the teaching profession with compensation commensurate with other kinds of work done by people with comparable levels of education and experience. But homemakers and Stay-At-Home-Parents probably suffer the most from this imbalance.
If I asked you how much a certain celebrity was “worth,” you would know exactly what I was asking, wouldn’t you? I would be asking you how much money they have, either in liquid assets or in property and stock values or whatever. What a horrible thing to think, though! How much they are “worth?” Really?
This is the world we live in, and we could do a lot more to counter these reductive messages that piggyback onto the already dehumanizing set of religious narratives which teach us to view ourselves according to someone else’s expectations. We are valued according to what we produce, not according to who we are, and that’s a problem for a species as inclined to self-analysis and the quest for meaning as we are.
As a post-theist, I am perpetually in the market for a workable narrative that enables me to view myself and my relationship to others in ways that are healthier than the ways I was taught to think about myself before I “left the fold.” I may have set aside the “good news” that told me I am deplorable scum without Someone Else swooping in to save me, but that does not automatically ensure that I will gain a new way to view myself and my value to the world that is healthy or sustainable in the long term.
I can tell you from personal experience that many post-theists struggle with depression, anxiety, and self-doubt, so I know I’m not the only one who feels the need for this. And I think a better life is available for those determined to make it happen. I maintain hope that these new ways of relating to the world, to others, and to ourselves can benefit everyone involved, not just the person asking all these seemingly navel-gazing questions like “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
So you can expect a bit more unpacking of this concept over the coming weeks and months because that’s where I am right now. The deconversion process may never be fully done for some of us, but I’m determined to keep working on it until I’ve gotten to a healthier place emotionally and intellectually. I hope you’ll stay engaged as well and participate in the discussion as it unfolds.
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