Asking the right question

12 10 2014

Curious Owl“Are you worth it?”

A challenging question, posed by a therapist, specifically designed to provoke a response. It’s meant to prod the ego, to summon a sense of defiance. Yes, I am worth it. I am worth this deeply painful struggle to recover a strong and healthy sense of self. I am fighting for myself, and I am worth it.

For many patients, this would be a good energizing tactic. But you need to know your audience. It’s not a good question to ask someone whose self-esteem has tanked. Because the response is not a chin-up, fist-shaking, “Yes!” The response is a pause, a frown, a plunge into anxious introspection. Am I worth it? What am I worth? What is my value? Is it found in the service I can be to others? Is it in my work? What I have created? If the sum total is unextraordinary, meaningless, then am I, too, unextraordinary, meaningless? Unworthy of salvation, as the theists might say?

And even presuming that my works have worth to those around me, how does that relate to me? Who am I, apart from what I do? How do I calculate the worth of the “I” in the center, the ultimate Subject, apart from all the verbs and objects?

In other words, here we go again. New material for the Ruination Chorus. Of course I’m not worth it. I can ruminate for hours on all the ways I’m not worth it. “FUBAR!” says the Owl.

Let us rephrase the question: “Is it worth it?”

This not mere rhetorical sleight of hand. There is a critical difference in the two questions, although they might seem to amount to the same thing. In the first, the subject is the person wrestling with the sickness. The second refocuses the attention to the struggle itself. Is the fight worth what might be gained? This requires only a moment’s reflection. The alternatives to continuing the struggle are, quite simply, giving up and living in misery, or ending the whole mess with suicide. The first alternative is unacceptable. No, I most certainly do not want to spend the rest of my existence in joyless despair and self-loathing. The second alternative is equally unacceptable. Not only does it end all possibility of future moments of joy and happiness, but it would leave in its wake profound damage to those I leave behind. I’ll be dead eventually anyway. It makes no sense to rob myself of what opportunities remain for me in the days I have left.

That leaves a firm “Yes” as the only possible answer. Even now, with the Ruination Chorus at my back, the painful memories, the sense of loss and regret, the fear of failure and abandonment, the whole bleak, tear-drenched march through the grey and gloomy forest, I still have moments of joy. I still can laugh. I can take delight in people and things. Slowly, it is getting better as my poor, age-addled brain, creaking with its loss of plasticity, trains itself to respond more skillfully and effectively to old bad habits of thought. In week four, going into week five of Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Meditation practice, I can feel the difference.

I can grin at the Owl and say, “Who you calling fubar?”

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One response

12 10 2014
Mary Jolles

Amen to your piece on the worth of living! Rephrasing the question to “Is it worth it?” helps us step around the awkwardness of the “Am I worth it?” question which seems to beg for judgment, where judgment is simply meaningless. Of course life, and living, is worth it. Period. Every living thing’s life means something. That’s why I dodge woolly bear caterpillars on the road, but it is also why I strive to do with my life what I believe will give it meaning as a human being. (Emphasis on the “I believe” part of that sentence.). But each one of us searches for meaning individually. It isn’t like we’re trying to join “The Meaningful Life Club.” The other members would find me woefully lacking in purpose, whereas I…I’m respecting others and having a great time!

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