Personal, Sunday Musings, Uncategorized

What are we worth?

I have to confess I struggled a bit – maybe a lot – with my body image when gyms closed and lockdown was implemented a few months ago. I don’t want to dwell on things too negatively in this blog space. Let’s just say disruption to routine, which for me would have included a fitness regimen, was upsetting, to say the least.

I’m all about the idea of being kind to myself. But I also felt pretty bad – at one point, I didn’t even want to go out for my daily quarantine walk, because I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and the idea of going out in public (even a deserted public environment) seemed like the worst thing I could do.

Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s fine because “everyone is beautiful”. Hear me out. Beauty is a standard, an ideal; so it’s impossible for everybody to be beautiful. If nobody deviated from the ideal beauty, beauty wouldn’t be of interest to anyone. It would certainly not be the subject of desire or envy. It is the fact that each of us have an awareness of the elusiveness, rarity, and transience of beauty, and its high aesthetic value, that we can talk about – and care about – beauty at all.

And I’m not going to tell you that “everyone is beautiful on the inside“, either, because that is also plainly false. It’s certainly possible for somebody to not meet the outward conventions of beauty and also be a bad person! It’s not like deviating from standards of visible beauty would suddenly make you a saint. So saying people are beautiful “on the inside” should not be used as some kind of replacement for “everyone is beautiful” either. It seems to me talking about beauty on the “inside” is a type of consolation, rather than a concept which captures and fully recognises the complexity and diversity of people’s inner qualities.

I think what we are really getting at when we try to reconcile the concept of beauty with universal possibility is something rather more serious. What these longings of beauty capture is, I think, some kind of inherent desire we have as human beings to value positively and be valued positively. It seems bad or cruel to not positively value someone for something, which is why we all seem to be in the habit of trying to find redeeming qualities in people that we can pick out as the thing which determines their positive value. And we could be valued positively for all kinds of things – the quality of our work, how kind we are to others, how well we play an instrument, and so on and so forth. For some reason, it seems being beautiful is one way of being valued that seems to matter quite a lot in our world (especially for women).

Now being valued positively may seem like a good thing in general, but there are negative aspects to it that are unavoidable. If I specially designate “productivity” as the ability I value positively in a person, then it already imposes on that person an expectation that they be productive in order to be valued positively by me. Doesn’t seem so bad if they are productive without exception, but if they are human like everybody else, chances are they will not always be productive. When they are not being productive, they obviously cannot be valued positively in terms of their productivity. If you know your boss values you positively for being productive, it’s probably hard to localise the feeling of failure you might get if you had an unproductive day. Suddenly you are in a bad mood and you feel like a failure, full stop. You think it’s a character flaw that you need to change about yourself to be worth something to the world again. To be able to “show your face” again. It becomes a big deal.

I think this is how adherence to beauty works too. There’s beauty, the thing that is valued positively, which seems fine to the extent that it’s just one of many ways to be valued at all. But, like the other things, it can suddenly become a big deal because we want to maintain that positive valuation, yet, like many other qualities we possess, it’s not the type of quality everybody can have all of the time without exception. And so beauty becomes this thing you want to fix in yourself all of the time because you want to keep the way you are valued positively stable, even though your embodied existence is by nature unstable.

And beauty is a loaded concept. Innocuous comments like “That person is in good shape” or “They look like they take care of themselves” are all compliments of someone’s beauty, but it has implications to do with not only how they look in terms of their physical fitness, but also their fitness in terms of their character and spirit. When we appraise someone’s beauty, we are often combining the image we appreciate visually about them with some assumption about an excellence of their character – that they work hard, they aren’t lazy, they groom themselves well, they have the ability to follow conventions of society, they care about making a good impression, etc. This is probably also part of why it can feel devastating to fall short – not only do I not look the part of society’s standards, the fact that I don’t is like a mistake I made – or so it seems.

Now being valued in any direction, positive or negative, is inevitable and unavoidable. And it’s clear that while being valued positively seems desirable, falling short means that we can fall into heavy doubt about our value. But if the claim that “everybody” is beautiful is false, how do we make it feel ok to not be perfect? How do we accept the human fact that we are all prone to fall short of some impossible ideal like Beauty?

There are a couple of things I can think of, and feel free to let me know if you have any other ideas.

The first thing is to remember is that there aren’t many things which we can or should actually aspire to attain all of the time without exception. You feel bad about having a “bad hair day” – but why? Maybe you had to attend to more important things. It’s not like everyone else is having a perfect hair day! You feel bad about not exercising for an entire week, but it really isn’t the end of the world, either. You feel bad for eating “junk food”; but again, eating itself is supposed to be good for you, it’s just that you feel guilty that you didn’t have the most nutritionally complete meal. The good news is that none of us are “special” in not being perfect. It is a perfectly common fact that human beings are fallible – none of us are alone in that.

To give you a more personal example: I have been having issues with dermatitis for a while, which has largely just been a cosmetic bother for me. When I’m around others, particularly those I perceive to have “better” skin than me, I notice that I’ll literally apologise to people for “having terrible skin”. How bad is that? We seem to each care about lots and lots of “flaws” like these. It’s understandable to an extent – as I’ve mentioned, we are after all striving for a ‘positive value’ (and often we enforce and police our own standards!). We want to try and improve and become better in whatever way.

Striving to improve is not necessarily problematic. It’s the attitude we take on when we fall short of improvement which is often the detrimental thing to us. The big deal about falling short of some ideal is not about falling short, but rather the accompanying perception that we are each irrevocably and uniquely flawed. It’s the getting down on ourselves in a way that is disproportionate to the “flaw” we’ve committed – me apologising to other people for an involuntary skin condition being a case in point.

We may not be in control of whatever we think our flaws to be, but we can certainly have better attitudes towards ourselves about those flaws.

The next thing to remember, I think, is to treat our value and worth as not being contingent on any one standard or quality – including things like beauty. Instead of claiming everyone is beautiful, which already perpetuates an overemphasis on the importance of beauty, we need to remember that the qualities the world appears to value us for, such as beauty, is simply not all that we are worth. So it’s not that we should pretend everyone is beautiful – it’s that we need to recognise that everyone has a value besides the value that is conferred on them based on their success in fulfilling some socially inherited ideal.

Our general value and worth is also independent of any one valuer. This means my worth is not fully determined by either you, nor me, nor anything or anyone else. We all have a worth and a value just by being the kinds of creatures that we are. Sure, there are differences between people – like how some people are bigots, and others are not. This is fine – all this means is that we have practical norms and conventions of value against which we may, for whatever purpose, subject people to different judgments and evaluations. So I’m not saying everyone should be judged in the same way, or that we don’t have legitimate reasons to differentially judge people sometimes. And we should certainly be permitted to hold one another accountable for a great many things. But this is a slightly different point. All I am trying to say is this: the fact that we just are the kinds of beings that have worth and value means that our worth on the whole cannot just get outright subtracted or erased in accordance with how much we screw up or fall short of some ideal.

So what exactly is that worth and value? Well, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing anyone can even begin to describe in simple terms.

But I suspect that worth and value is the thing that makes us talk about universal human rights (like access to clean water, shelter, and so on) like it should apply to everyone. It’s the thing that makes it difficult for people to defend the idea criminals deserve to be sentenced to imprisonment (or even death…) without a due process and fair trial. It’s the thing that makes our heart ache when we see other people – including strangers – suffering. It’s the thing that makes deaths a tragedy. It’s the thing that gives us an interest in the welfare of people with whom we have no contact or relation whatsoever. It’s the thing that makes our caring emotions and empathetic faculties make any sense.

This means we can have bad days or make mistakes and still be worth something; everything.

This means others can bully us or put us down and we’d still be worth something; everything.

This means others can treat us as invisible and we’d still be worth something; everything.

And this means, most of all, that no matter how much I decide to hate myself, I’d still be worth something; everything.

Our value and worth is not something anyone – not even yourself – can change. You can’t help but be the kind of being that has this value. So perhaps part of changing our attitude about our flaws is to positively acknowledge that we all have value in a way that isn’t up to us, and in a way that is independent of any one of our individual qualities or characteristics.

Being dissatisfied with how we fulfil particular domains of social expectation and abstract ideals is one way to respond to our personal anxieties about our value. But let the value you have, which persists regardless (though thick and thin, for better or worse), become a source of awe, strength, and humility.

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Personal, Sunday Musings

Getting rejected is harsh. But it’s also not all bad.

I’ve been rejected in all manner of ways. Here are some recent ways:

-Jobs I’d applied to rejecting me after months and months of radio silence. (I was rejected by a good 15-20 jobs before even getting shortlisted for interviews this year)
-Papers I’d been working on for months on end getting rejected by the only journals I wanted to publish in. (May not seem like a big deal to most people, but publishing is essential in my chosen career)
-Visa issues that felt a lot like being rejected or shunned by the state for being an outsider.

I won’t even get into the more personal stuff. I’m sure you’ll have plenty examples of your own. It stings, right?

But why is rejection so upsetting, humiliating, demoralising? Is it because we didn’t get what we wanted? Is it because we focused all our time and energy into something only to get ‘nothing’ in return? Is it because rejection tells us something about our flaws? That we just aren’t up to standard?

Perhaps. But there’s a couple of things I’ve taken from the experience of rejection which I suppose have allowed me to not see it as the most terrible possible thing to happen to me.

First thing to get out of the way – it’s important to remember that whether you did or did not do something to warrant rejection, rejection is in a way not up to us in the first place. Call it a case of bad luck or undesired luck if you will. The negative aspect of this is that no matter how hard you work, difficult circumstances beyond your control can render the fruits of your labour moot (hello, Covid-19). Even the most competent person is not immune to bad luck, which may seem to us like something of an injustice. The nasty side of this is that it can make us bitter – if our hard work doesn’t pay off because of some seemingly arbitrary thing, why bother? And this resignation self-perpetuates – it seems to us we are stuck in a cycle of bad luck, so we are stuck in it.

But the possible bright side to this, and the thing we tend to forget, is that nobody is immune to good luck either. We probably tend to underplay this latter fact for a couple of reasons: firstly, because we like to think we are always responsible, rather than merely lucky, for the good things that happen to us; secondly, because success that is mostly a result of good luck doesn’t seem praiseworthy or anything to boast about – it may seem distasteful, for example, to be proud of something you achieved not because of a special talent but rather due to a fortuitous series of events. But look – I think a good thing just is a good thing first of all, and we have a sense of what that means to us, and whether the good thing is good in a morally praiseworthy fashion is something further we can think about.

The thing is, we make our choices, but we are partially just vehicles of Fortune. This means that if we are at risk of getting the bad end of a deal, we are often not to blame at all for it. And it means that even when we get the good end of a deal, it might not seem praiseworthy that we get it. I must say I am personally guilty of reading my good and bad luck in extreme ways – if something bad happens I tend to blame myself entirely for it, and when something good happens I tend to dismiss it as a fluke or a freak accident (I often narrativise my successes as “miracles”, for instance).

But we needn’t dwell on these implications too much. We are partially responsible for some things, and partially not responsible for others. What we should take away from this is that we are at the very least not fully to blame for the bad (or good!) things that come our way, so our tendencies to obsess over our own competence or lack thereof is just that – a kind of obsession. Luck will laugh in everyone’s face – both at the person who lacks the confidence to trust that rejection is not entirely their fault, and at the person who is so arrogant they believe they deserved not to get rejected. Luck can align with us when we least expect it, and be nowhere to be found when we need it the most. So I think it’s sensible to take up the spirit of luck, so to speak, when reflecting on things like rejection, which can seem so visceral and personal to us.

Having said all this, I want to go through how I would manage rejection. The first thing is that, well, rejection is just a rejection. It’s not The Rejection. The latter is just what it feels like sometimes. But we ought to resist the idea that it’s the final word. The world we live in is finite, but not static – nothing is forever, and neither is whatever “bad thing” you think gets compounded, sealed, and locked into fate by rejection. This is because either you, or the world, can and will change. And that change can happen in surprising and unexpected ways. Moreover, we just can’t anticipate all the ways that we, or the world, might change – that mystery is the beauty and hope of it!

For every time we see a lost opportunity as a “failure”, we could also narrativise it as a different kind of opportunity – an opportunity to learn, adjust, practice, become open to alternatives, and also redirect what we value and how we value things. It really sucks not to get the thing you thought your heart was set on. But your value as a person, and your future outcomes, don’t necessarily hinge on that one opportunity on which you psychologically staked your entire life’s worth – they rarely do.

The glamour associated with not being rejected is actually overstated as well. There’s a lot we can gain from rejection if we can get past the pain. We can, for example, find out where we are going ‘wrong’, by taking feedback seriously. This can be a good thing – there’s something humble and unselfish about the act of taking other people’s opinion’s into account and really caring about it (regardless of whether they are right or wrong). So if a rejection can help cultivate opportunities for us to exercise that kind of humility, all the better for our sensitivity and attentiveness to our effect on others, and others’ perception of us. I mean, we are probably more impervious to other people’s opinions and too stubborn about our own than we’d like to admit. I know it seems sexy to embody a persona that is immune to other people’s opinions and to be able to say that you got where you are today despite all the naysayers. And I understand that the world is full of bullshit and that it’s hard to filter out the fluff. But maybe if five, ten different people are giving you similar feedback, which form the basis of some kind of ‘rejection’, perhaps we should really start thinking about what we might do differently the next time, and that it’s a good thing somebody pointed it out to us. I actually have a personal example of a teacher who was honest enough to tell me why my work wasn’t up to par, but at the time I just didn’t want to hear it and only took away the feeling of resentment towards them. Looking back, I can see that they were totally right, and that if I could only get past the injury to my ego, their criticisms would actually have helped better prepare me for future projects important to me.

We can also learn about the gap between our skills and abilities and what the world wants from them. Often a rejection tells us something about that gap, rather than anything about our qualities. For example, if I can’t find a job as an English teacher in an English-speaking country, what that tells me is that the particular environment in which I am looking to exercise my skills is not particularly accommodating for what I have to offer, not that there is something actually wrong with my skills. There is just a gap between what I can do vs. what the world wants from what I can do. Perhaps that gap between what I have to offer and what the world is like will change if I move to a locality that isn’t saturated with English-speakers. How our abilities get valued is variable and relative to particularised contexts – we don’t live in a vacuum where our abilities have exactly X value. Covid-19 makes that point salient: because the world right now is focused on getting a newly spreading virus under control, how different industries and people’s skills get valued has shifted radically in the meantime. And it will continue to change as the states of affairs in the world evolves further.

As a person with an “arts and humanities” background, I get that it’s scary. I was already living in a world where what I do is maybe not considered universally valuable, and I’d been prepared for the worst. When I finished my PhD, I knew that I had a mountain of obstacles ahead of me and that I’d have to accept the countless ‘No’s coming my way. The point is, while we should be diligent and reasonable in our own expectations about closing this gap, there’s no particular reason to think that our skills couldn’t have great use elsewhere, at a later time, or that they could not be transferrable/repurposed. And if that doesn’t seem possible, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that you’ve committed yourself to something, which seems to me pretty important in itself as an experience to have in life. And so it’s not the worst thing if rejection can give us real-time, real-world insight into how receptive the world is to the things we can offer it. With that insight, we can plan better, we can plan differently, we can try again.

Rejection is also a way to discern and discriminate between things we should and shouldn’t be invested in for our mental and emotional well-being. If a person keeps rejecting you, for example, it’s a pretty good indicator that you’ll get more out of other people, and that it’s not a relationship that will develop further right this moment. Sounds pretty obvious, but being filtered out even when it’s against our own wishes is actually better than being strung along under false pretences, no? Again, I realise this is not a very sexy idea – perhaps some of us entertain the fantasy that we’ll get the thing we covet if only we tried hard enough! But sometimes, it’s just not worth it. It’s ok to get tired of trying and trying to get the thing that you really want, not get it, still want it, but give it up nonetheless – if only just to keep your sanity intact. Rejection can act as a boundary in this sense – it can indicate to us that we have done all that we can, but also that we have done just about enough, and that enough is where our pursuit should come to an end. Rejection can make us take stock of our health; a ‘No’ does not have to be a condemnation of who you are, but rather a ‘This is neither a healthy nor productive target of your time’.

I’m really not one to ‘see the positive’ in everything – I am actively against the idea that relentless or uncritical positivity is actually helpful to anybody. But I do hope that in these trying and exceptional times we can forgive ourselves and understand that we are tangled in a complex web of forces – some within, and some beyond our control – when the world says ‘No’ to us.

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