(Note to the reader: the following is a completely rhetorical and philosophic post. I have plenty of self-esteem. I have self-esteem coming out of my ears. I regularly have excess self-esteem drained off and donated to junior high boys preparing to call a girl for the first time.)
I've been thinking a lot lately about self-esteem and how it relates to my struggles to live in such a way as to increase the odds of a healthy future. (Coincidentally, David Spero has a column on this very subject published just today over at Diabetes Self-Management.) I think, perhaps, that I've spent my life holding the wrong end of the stick. Maybe I've been telling myself that I'd earn self-affirmation when I'd lost my weight, or when I'd achieved some other goal -- and it never happens. Maybe if I could learn to give myself affirmation without preconditions, I'd then have the internal resources I need to pursue my goals more effectively.
Okay, then the question arises: what is the basis for self-esteem? If it's not working to base that esteem on what I do, then what can I count on being able to look to for strength, even on those days when I'm really screwing up?
I like to think of myself as a pretty bright guy, and I feel good about that. But, in my worldview, intelligence is a gift -- it's not to my moral credit, anymore than my baby blue eyes are. I like to think that I've made good use of that gift by doing a lot of reading, attaining a good education, getting a good job that I have because of that education. But then what can I do on those days when I make mistakes? And, at my age, the old knife just isn't quite as sharp as it used to be: am I growing less worthwhile as I age? That obviously won't work at all.
I'm a good and caring person - is that a solid basis for self-esteem? Well, we're getting closer to it. But I have bad times, too -- when I'm cranky, or judgmental, or cater too much to my creature comforts. Do I become worthless on those occasions when I don't visit a friend in the hospital because I really want to hide under my bed? No: I think this is still dangerous ground.
The only basis I can think of that seems to serve as a solid basis for self esteem is simply that I am. I am human: in my worldview, I am a soul, a child of God. I have a worth that's inherent, inalienable, and indestructible. I have the worth that every man, woman and child has, the value that causes us to grieve when we learn of the deaths or struggles of people we know nothing of.
Of course, as I learn to place more value in that worth, that means I'm also placing more value in your worth, and my coworker's worth, and the worth of the woman in the minivan that almost runs me over, and the worth of the billions of people with whom I will never have any contact at all. That doesn't strike me as a bad thing, either.
I am worthwhile. Simply because I am.