I don’t know her name. In fact I don’t know anything about her except she was an incredibly poor beggar child. I never realised when I took this photo that years later her face would still be etched in my memory. I remember the crossing of our paths as if it was yesterday. Maybe it had something to do with where we met – the Amber Palace near Jaipur in India – and the contrast between the indulgent opulence of the surrounds and the undisguised poverty of the child. Or maybe it was the sense of guilt that I carried no money or food and had nothing to give her. But for a few moments something happened that left an indelible impression – we found common ground as two human beings who understood and accepted each other. She seemed to understand that I was unable to respond to her desperate need and behind that shy smile and sad eyes I saw a sweet sensitive child who refused to yield to her adverse circumstances. In that brief encounter we dropped all pretenses and I saw her true value, a fellow creature whose worth was equal to mine. Whenever I look at this image I find that I regain a perspective about all that is worthwhile in life and am reminded of how much of human pursuit is waste and vanity.
Have you every calculated your worth? Not the sum total of your assets which you can’t take with you but the actual flesh, blood and bone that is sitting in front of this screen.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils we are
plus trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminium, and arsenic.
Total value, approximately USD $1. Add a bit more if you have gold in your teeth and a titanium prosthesis – but who is going to waste time extracting the metal add-ons once you have departed? Ironically a sheep is worth more since the meat can at least be sold for food and the wool used for clothing.
Of course, you are more valuable to the spare parts industry, somewhere in the vicinity of USD $650,000 for your transplantable bits and pieces – warm, and in good working condition. And if you want to maintain perspective have a look inside an urn of human ashes and you will again be reminded of your finiteness. It is all a bit morbid and bordering on being repulsive, apart from being a useless exercise. All up, it is somewhat confronting to think that you are worth more dead than alive.
We tend to use the words ‘worth’ and ‘value’ interchangeably even though by definition they are subtly different. Worth has the feel of ‘inherent’ and value is usually an assigned measure of worth. It all gets a bit circular. Whichever way you choose to define the terms, what is significant is that we all live under the shadow of the great impediment of the capitalist mindset that assigns a measurable quantity to all things, animate or otherwise. Its mantra is, “all are not equal”. Some are worth more than others. Once the idea takes hold we invent socio-economic parameters to affirm it. A refugee fleeing persecution can arrive on the shores of a secure nation only to be imprisoned behind razor wire and banished indefinitely on a remote island simply because they do not meet the essential criteria of worthiness. Legislators are able to implement laws that allow for execution of the lowest. Wealth and power begin to equate with greatness and influence, importance and privilege. Some ensure that they are above the law. Others change the law to suit themselves. The chasms of separation which measure the relative value of all individuals are the ubiquitous enforcers of our ideas of worth.
It is little wonder that so many of us struggle with self-esteem issues. Relative human worth is the warp and woof of our society – not equality and liberty as we might be led to believe. And the more a population increases the more apparent the impact of relative worth becomes as we fight to control our finite resources. There is a definite correlation between how much we accumulate and our adopted value system which defines us by these measurable socio-economic criteria . The rich becoming richer at the expense of the poor become poorer is not a new phenomenon. Increasing power of the few is always gained at the expense of diminishing power of the many. Karl Marx was heading down this path this with his observations of the perpetual struggle between the haves and the have nots and formulated concepts that changed the course of history. The struggle to establish value and preserve self esteem has deep sociological roots.
Once we reach the stage where we measure worth by wealth, the inequality and disparity becomes self-evident, and with it comes the insidious idea that some people are actually more valuable than others. It is complex phenomenon, but like or not, we end up with labels and price tags that define who we are and the degree of power and privilege we have over our fellow (ask anyone who relies on social security whether this is true or not). With the awareness of these labels and assigned price tags comes inner discontent and anxiety to balance our personal ledger in favour of the ‘worth’ column. This is the reality of human nature and nothing much is going to change for a long time. So rather than fight against the reality it makes more sense to learn how to live with it. It is how we go about this that is where can make it or break it.
I want to make are four observations and conclude with another personal experience.
- The pervasive idea of developing a healthy self-esteem is not the solution to value adding. For all its acceptance as a concept it may actually be more counterproductive than essential for our mental and emotional well-being.
- External affirmation and internal affirmation do not necessarily equate. We can be surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who all like and affirm us and still be plagued by self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. ‘Likes’ are not a value adding tool.
- We may need to change our reference point for determining value. Rather than assessing human worth in terms of success, prosperity and achievement (externals) we might want to measure self worth by something more permanent.
- Your self-worth is ultimately decided by you, and you alone.
The people’s market in Delhi, India is not on the ‘must see’ list of most tourist itineraries but I managed to persuade a taxi driver to take me there and spent the morning getting lost in a sea of humanity. The experience is a total assault on the senses with unexpected surprises around every corner, like these three girls fighting over a red elastic hair tie that someone had lost. They were beggar children who survived by scavenging for food and anything else they could find of any value in the market place. They had obviously formed an alliance for protection, but were nevertheless the fiercest of competitors. The tall girl on the left had the agility and strength to secure the meagre trophy. The small child on the right contented herself with the crumbs that fell from the table. The one in the middle really caught my attention. She had fire and determination – look at the anger in her eyes – and was a born survivor. But she had an undeniable presence and was clearly the leader of the little pack. I couldn’t help but wonder what untapped qualities she would have been displayed in different circumstance. No, there is no slum dog millionaire ending to this story. The trio quickly melted in the crowd once more, intent in making it through another day as one of countless millions of this world’s poor. The pathetically shabby misfitting dress was her only possession, but as a person she had a grace and dignity that gave her undeniable worth.
Next: Self-esteem – not all that it seems.