39: How can I determine whether I am worthy of good things?
Integrity comes, in part, from not accepting what I did not earn. One way that I attempted to ensure this from a young age was to rigorously scrutinize myself as a way to test and determine whether I could accept goods nearby. In practice, this meant that I would feel guilt if I accepted gifts from others beyond my ability to repay. I thus often found myself striving to give far more than I received at all times, and showing excessive gratitude for gifts that others exchanged as a matter of course. Although motivated by a good philosophy—I still value integrity—in practice this only perpetuated my feeling of worthlessness.
By the time I turned 39, I had been divorced for two years: I had trusted that I needed to leave my marriage, which was necessary for me to do in order to discover what I actually wanted. My ex-wife had been a gracious, loving support throughout the time that I had known her, and I had intended that our marriage last for a lifetime. And so, although I intellectually knew that it was the most responsible way to honor the woman I had married and intuitively sensed that it was necessary, at an emotional level I felt guilt and shame about what I felt as my failure to stay married instead of seeing it as a way to honor the relationship by recognizing that it no longer served the two of us.
Overall, I struggled with a sense of inadequacy, as though I was unworthy of good things because I did not properly appreciate them when I had them. I ignored the changing shape of higher education and the wisdom of my mentors and colleagues and took personally the fact that I could not get a tenure track position.
Unable at the time to look seriously at the patterns of my life, I began a relationship with someone whose carefree disposition and habits were, as I realize now, the photonegative of what I had valued in my ex-wife. This gave me different kinds of relationship problems to confront but brought me no closer to finding peace within myself. No matter how much I attempted to do for the woman I dated, I felt like I could never provide her—or myself—with a sense of peace. Instead of sensing that the true problem was not doing enough to love myself, I interpreted this as clear confirmation that I was cursed to causing harm to those I cared about. Feeling like I was destined to poison the good things around me caused me to despair. I did not want to be alive if I caused harm because I cared.
By the end of 39, I had begun to slowly move out from that relationship. I was beginning to understand that I would not feel like I deserved good things no matter how hard I worked. To “deserve” was the wrong question—answers almost always describe a feeling of entitlement. Generally, people use “deserve” to describe something to which they feel entitled (better grades, better pay, promotion). It is more accurate to see “deserve” as referring to basic human rights—access to health care or education—that most human would recognize in theory, if not also in practice). Complicating this confusion, I knew that I probably deserved good things (like a job) and bad things (punishment) for my courage and my cowardice, respectively. Deserving generally depended on imaginary, unspoken external rules I could not control. Worth, on the other hand, was mine to accept or reject based on my true feelings about myself.
I ended my 39th year resolving to treat myself as though I was worthy of good things whether or not I fully believed I deserved them. Worth can only be accepted: it is only determined or proven after the final chapter of a life draws to an end—and even then it can be re-examined. I realized that it is my responsibility to find and claim my worth rather than relying on others to supply it. I wanted to feel worthy of gifts that I gave to myself. This decision made it necessary to invest in my preferences and whims—something I had felt unable to speak for in my previous lives. I decided to change one room in my house to be the way I liked it—with a green lava lamp, green Christmas lights, my bean bag, lots of books, and a picture of an oversized cow that I had carried with me since college. I purchased a journal, and on its first page asked the following questions:
What is permissible? What is beneficial?
How can I become righteous before God (if there is one)?
How can I learn to love myself, in my flesh?
Who benefits me as company? What company will I permit?
What is the place of community? How can I disrupt society?
Where is peace? Where is home?
What does it mean for me to love and care for myself?
I also realized that being responsible meant allowing support from others that I could trust. I therefore resolved to seek out situations, circumstances, and relationships that celebrated the fact that I am worthwhile just as I am—and to no longer emphasize contexts that made me feel like I lacked value.