Where can a person find self-worth?

Writing in the August 13 edition of The Atlantic, Luke Epplin asks, “Must every kids’ movie reinforce the cult of self-esteem?” Epplin bemoans the formulaic sameness of kids’ animated films in which, time and again, the protagonists must “surmount their biggest fears –and believe that their greatness comes from within.”

Epplin rattles of a list of films that stick to this theme, including Kung Fu Panda, Ratatouille, Wreck-It Ralph, Monsters University and two recent releases, Turbo and Planes. In DreamWorks’ Turbo, a snail of the same name works in the tomato garden by day but dreams of racing glory each night. In Disney’s latest kid’s-flick, Planes, Dusty the crop-duster longs to ditch the daily grind and win fame by competing in an illustrious around-the-world race.

Both Turbo and Dusty surmount their fears and achieve their dreams by believing in themselves. Epplin writes, “It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.”

Epplin believes that American young people have been stunted by a constant diet of this pablum. “Younger generations,” he says, quoting “Generation Me” by Jean Twenge, “simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams.” But this leaves out important information and gives “the false impression that the road to self-actualization isn’t arduous and littered with speed bumps.”

Children are urged to believe in themselves when they should be taught to believe in something bigger than themselves. They are told to dig deep when they should be told to work hard, for unless they work hard they won’t find anything, no matter how deep within they dig.

What happens to the young glory seeker after he has dug deep and believed in himself and still turned out to be … ordinary? Will he find a way to be happy and productive or will his disappointment lead to despair? And even if he is successful in achieving his goal, will his success be enough to sustain a healthy self-esteem over a lifetime?

Consider basketball legend Michael Jordan. In an article this year in ESPN Magazine, Wright Thomson says that Michael’s “self-esteem has always been, as he says, ‘tied directly to the game.’” Jordan worked hard and dug deep, and achieved unparalleled success in his sport. But he no longer has “game,” and he’s restless. When he lost basketball he lost himself.

Unless Michael finds a reason other than basketball to value himself, he will be an unhappy man, vulnerable to depression and even despair. But if a healthy self-esteem cannot be founded on stellar achievements, still less on tired clichés, upon what can it be founded?

Value – whether of things or selves – is dependent upon the desirability of that thing or self to another. In other words, a thing’s value lies outside itself and in the desire of another. A company’s stock, for example, only has value if someone wants it. If no one wants it, it is worthless. But what about a person? Does a person have value if no one wants him or her?

It is often argued that humans are intrinsically valuable, but this does not go far enough. The value of a human self, like the value of anything, lies outside itself and in the desire of another. And humans are desired by another. This is the message of religion generally and of Christianity in particular: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”

We are valuable even when other people don’t value us, even when we don’t value ourselves, because God values us. The death of Christ bespeaks the great worth God places on us. He sees more in us than we see in ourselves. Or say rather, seeing a future for us that he intends to create, he invested himself in the reclamation of humanity. That investment makes us priceless. And faith enables us to live in anticipation of the day that investment reaches maturity.

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