At some point, a whole lot of years before now, I constructed a method of determining my value to the world. Given the simplicity of the approach, I’d say I created it during my adolescence…and, like many childhood habits, it stuck. The system was easy and probably seemed quite rational at the time. If I’d had the vocabulary to be pithy back then, I might have titled it something like, “What can be counted counts!” I basically figured out how to quantify and evaluate the things that make me who I am to determine whether or not I was “good”…
- I could quantify “smart”…by good grades and positive feedback from teachers.
- I could quantify “nice”…by friendships and acceptance within social groups.
- I could quantify “funny”…by how often and whether I made people laugh.
- I could quantify “talented”…by being cast in plays, chorus, and orchestra.
- I could quantify “creative”….by the output of writing, music, and crafts.
- I could quantify “attractive”…by the size of my clothes, the number on the scale, and whether or not boys liked me.
- I could quantify “successful”….by promotions, good reviews, and my parents’ response to me.
- I could quantify “responsible”….by living within my means and a good credit score.
- I could quantify “optimistic”…by the number of terrible situations I managed to overcome without (letting anyone know I was) collapsing.
I’ve spent the last 35-40 years constructing an elaborate tally sheet of my life. I’ve automatically used it every single day to determine my self-worth. Am I doing well? Let’s check the list! Survey says…
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s bullshit. The tally sheet is focused around externalities. It relies on a feedback loop. It hinges on the assessment of others…which means I’ve been linking my value to their journey (which is crazy). You know that person who says “It’s not you, it’s me”? There’s actually truth in that. The way we respond to others is a reflection of where we are within ourselves…often much more so than anything relating to the person we’re responding to. I know this to be true because I’ve experienced it: I get more frustrated with the Monkey when I feel yucky – not because he is particularly more or less frustrating. He could be perfectly constant, but my response changes because of where I am…what I’m feeling.
So the tally system is a recipe for disaster. It puts me in a world in which my opinion of myself is intrinsically linked to how I’m evaluated by others…an evaluation that, at any given moment, may have nothing to do with me. It’s a house of cards…and it’s come crashing down on more than one occasion. For years, I’ve let my sense of self-worth diminish because I was convinced that I was getting a bad score in my own life.
But what if life isn’t intended to be a score card? What if my value can be rooted simply in the existence of those things that make me who I am? What if I could continue to embody all of those attributes on my list (smart, nice, funny, creative, optimistic, etc…) without the running tally….without the need for scorekeeping…without the external assessment? What if I just accepted, fully embraced, that my value is intrinsically linked to who I am…that it is grounded in the unique alchemy of heart and mind and body and spirit that makes me, me.
What if all I need to do is accept myself?
Acceptance is the great equalizer that stops the roller coaster of externalities. Acceptance brings a quiet acknowledgement that negates the need for tally sheets and score cards and comparative living. I am always perfect and I am always flawed. I am equally as perfect and as flawed when I achieve as I am when I fail. (Let me say that again: I am equally as perfect and as flawed when I achieve as I am when I fail). I am smart when I know the answer and exactly as smart when I don’t. I am beautiful when I am loved by another and beautiful when only I love me. I can embrace the joyful complexity of who I am…the improbable odds of my very existence in this particular configuration in this place and time…for the simple miracle that it is. I can let go of the need to have that existence validated.
And it’s not about ego. Acceptance doesn’t mean I get a free pass to be a jerk simply because I exist. I still have a responsibility to contribute to the world around me. Acceptance just means that my contribution can emanate from a place of understanding, gratitude, and authenticity, rather than from some (false) competitive requirement to be named valedictorian of my own life (spoiler alert: the size of the graduating class is one…so I’m pretty much a shoe-in for graduating both first and last simultaneously). Absent the misguided attempts at scoring, contribution becomes a joyful opportunity rather than a rung on a mythical ladder to nowhere.
Honestly, I feel a little foolish that it’s taken me this long to recognize such a simple truth. My instinct, of course, is to berate myself with a lower grade (because shouldn’t I have known? Shouldn’t this have been obvious?), but that doesn’t seem particularly useful anymore. Instead, I’m just going to be grateful, take a deep breath, and appreciate how amazing my life will be when I’m not keeping score at all.