“You’re at the top of your class! I’m so proud of you!”
“That young woman is so beautiful! She’s going to go far in life….”
“What an athlete–MVP of three teams! He’s got so much going for him!”
“See that guy? He’s the CEO of a huge company! Now he’s someone to admire!”
“You should never have to work at a minimum-wage job! You deserve better than that!!”
“He’s got so many gifts for ministry! He’s a natural minister! It’s too bad he’s gay…”
“If you’re struggling financially, you’re obviously just lazy! Work harder!”
“Look at that poor boy in the wheelchair–I feel sorry for him….”
“You’re only a stay-at-home mom? What a waste…”
These attitudes, and others like them, are far too prevalent in our society. We are surrounded by messages that communicate that our worth is externally based, that our value as human beings comes from what we do, what we look like, or how much we’ve got going for us. We are repeatedly exposed to a belief system that suggests that our worth is directly proportional to how much we get paid or how much radiant beauty we add to the world by our outward appearance. Day in and day out, directly and indirectly, our kids hear that what matters is personal achievement and individual success, that their worth is dependent on their grades in school, their level of accomplishment in their activities, and the degree to which they live up to the expectations of the authority figures in their lives….
Do we really believe these messages? Are these really the messages we want our kids to believe?
Perhaps some would answer yes to both of those questions. I am not one of those people. I may not–and in fact, if I’m truly being honest, I know that I don’t–succeed at fighting those attitudes every moment of every day, but deep down I do not believe them. And I really, really do not want my kids to believe them. I do not believe that our worth as human beings comes from what we can do, how much we can produce, or how Glamour-/GQ-rated beautiful we are. I do not believe that our value as individuals is directly proportional to the number of digits in our salary, or inversely proportional to the number of struggles that we face (and admit to facing). I do not even believe that our worth is dependent on our contributing to rather than detracting from the general good….
Is it important to try to contribute to the good of society? Of course! Is it of value to work hard, to figure out what we are good at and try to do it well? Without a doubt! Is it good to make an effort to be healthy? I think so. Does our inherent value as human beings come from any of those things? Absolutely not.
Is the inherent value of someone who works at Walmart less than that of Bill Gates?
Is the inherent value of Angelina Jolie greater than that of a homeless woman in Boston?
Is a dyslexic child who struggles to read worth less as an individual than one for whom school is easy?
Is a child who was born into a wealthy, two-parent family worth more as an individual than one who is being raised by a single mom who has to work two jobs and even then is barely able to pay the bills?
Does a young woman with Down Syndrome have less inherent value than a valedictorian?
Does Peyton Manning have more inherent value than a boy born with muscular dystrophy?
It seems that our society as whole, as a culture, would answer “yes” to those questions.
I disagree. I believe that our worth–each of us, as individuals– is inherent in our existence. I believe that our value as human beings on this planet–mine, yours, our children’s, your boss’s, Taylor Swift’s, each of the Syrian refugees’, South African taxi drivers’, Mongolian yak herders’, Kim Jong-un’s, Australian opera singers’–you get the idea–is dependent only on that fact, that we are human beings, on this planet. We have immeasurable value, every single one of us, simply because we exist. Our worth does not come because we are good, or smart, or well-behaved, nor because we are productive, or accomplished, or busy all the time. It is not bestowed upon us by getting good grades, earning a six-figure salary, fitting into skinny jeans, or being invited to host Saturday Night Live. Nor is our value diminished by poor grades, bad behavior, alcoholism, minimum-wage work, a round rather than hourglass figure, or a criminal record. I believe that every single one of us is of incalculable worth, based simply on our existence, and that that inherent value was conferred upon us as an irreversible birthright by the Loving Creator of all that is.
That is what I want my kids to believe. And that is what I tell them. But I am not naive enough to believe that they will believe it, simply because I do. No matter how much I try to tell them, no matter how many ways I try to communicate that message, I do not believe that the voice of one person (even if that one person is me, their dear, wise, loving mother–perhaps especially if that one person is me, their dear, wise, loving mother!!) can drown out the many, many competing voices, and messages, of our culture. I need more voices to add to my own, more voices who share my belief, more voices who echo and affirm the message that every person, independent of their grades, skills, salary, skin color, family situation, nationality, GQ-/Glamour-rating, number of tattoos, house size, sexual orientation, etc., etc., etc., has inherent value and is a person of immeasurable worth.
I believe that a community of faith can provide those voices, affirming that message. Can affirm that message. Is that message always affirmed, in every faith community? No, (sadly) it is not. There are those who believe otherwise. But there are communities of faith where it is, and those are the communities to which I aspire to belong….
There are communities of faith who affirm the message of a birthright of immeasurable and immutable worth, and not just in words, but–hopefully–in actions. There are communities of faith where, whether you are financially secure or struggling, you are welcome, and valued! Where, whether you are gainfully employed or “between jobs,” you are welcome, and valued! Where, if you don’t have time for one more thing–but can somehow find time for one more thing!–you are welcome, and if you love nothing more than sitting at home in the stillness and quiet of your own home–but would like to get out and do just one thing–you are welcome, and valued! There are communities of faith where, if you struggle at school, whether because it’s really hard for you to sit still or because math is just hard for you or because you’d rather just goof off with your friends–yes, even that!–you are welcome, and valued! Where, if you buy hot lunch and throw most of it away, knowing you can have whatever you want to eat when you get home, you are welcome, and valued–or if you get free lunch at school and you eat every bite even if you don’t like it because you know there won’t be anything to eat at home except maybe crackers or a really brown banana, you are welcome, and valued! There are communities of faith where, if you used to be able to wear skinny jeans but three kids and fifteen years later the only skinny thing about you is your pinky fingers and those only on good days(!), you are welcome, and valued! Where, if you’ve never been able to wear skinny jeans and “skinny” has never even described your pinkies, you are welcome, and valued! And where, you who used to be able to wear skinny jeans…and now, five kids and twenty years later, still can–you are welcome, and valued! 🙂
In my experience, there are communities of faith who communicate, both in word and action, that worth is not based on externals, but rather is recognized as an inherent gift, present in each individual, that each of us has tremendous value, independent of the externals of our lives. That is a belief that I choose to live by, and a message I want my children to internalize. For me, that is a reason to belong to a community of faith.