Human Beings not Human “Havings”

I have often spoken of the importance of recognizing our identity and sacred worth as present from the beginning, as inseparable from who we are. In that sense it is a truth uncovered from within. It may also be described as a gift that is always there, and that can neither be gained nor lost. Yet we can fail to recognize that sacred worth in ourselves or in others. We can even violate or betray it in ourselves or others.

A problem in our society is that it tends to convey to us that we are human “havings.” Our worth is not seen as intrinsic, as within us, but as something to be acquired from outside by gaining possessions, and by gaining power over others. Our value is not given, but achieved, and achieved only at the expense of others. It is not seen as something already given and shared with others.

Such a view implies a profound insecurity. If my worth comes from outside myself, it can readily be lost. And so I have to maintain that, if someone is poor, it is their own fault. I fall into a pattern of blame rather than kindness. I also tend to be protective and even violent, since I need to protect what I have, or I will lose not just my possessions but my very self, which is identified with my possessions.. I become unfree and dominated by this need.

This view is in contradiction to the major religious traditions of the world, in their root origins at least. It is also in contradiction to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which grounds everything in what it calls the inherent dignity of each human being.

I just recently begin reading an older book by spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, called Simplicity, the Freedom of Letting Go, and was struck by his wording of these issues. He writes:

We live in a society that places great importance upon external signs of success and importance … on the distinctiveness of our cars, clothes, and dwellings. We tend to be preoccupied with being ‘one up’ on others, We have great difficulty in finding our value from within. In a materialistic society we have projected our sense of worth onto things. That is why we find it’s hard to rediscover our souls in ourselves. …

We live in an affluent society that’s always expecting more, wanting, more, and believes it has more coming to it. But the more we project the soul’s longing on to things, the more things disappoint us. Happiness is an inside job, and when we expect to find it outside ourselves, it is always a disappointment.,,,

When the soul is projected outward, we have less time for love, because we turn other people into articles for consumption too…. Ultimately we do the same thing to our own souls: we stand, as it were, outside ourselves and pass judgment on ourselves. Are we valuable or aren’t we? Are we right or wrong? But as we judge ourselves, we also tear ourselves apart…. If we don’t live from within our own centre, then we’ll go spinning around things…. Our real value depends on what we are and not what we do.

A further observation is that unless we have a sense of worth from the simple fact that we are, we are always in fear that we do not have any worth or that it can be lost, just as our possessions can be lost. In a book entitled Escape from Freedom, psychologist Erich Fromm writes that greed arises from an insatiable emptiness within that we are never able to fill with things or power. “Greed has no satiation point,” he writes, “since its consummation does not fill the inner emptiness, boredom, loneliness, and depression it is meant to overcome.” “Well-being is possible to the degree to which one is open, responsive, sensitive, awake, empty….Well-being means, finally, to be and to experience one’s self in the act of being, not in having, preserving, coveting, using.” “Selfish persons are incapable of loving others, but they are not capable of loving themselves either.”

The deepest fear is ultimately the fear that we are worthless and/or that there is something inherently wrong with us. It is often accompanied by a restless search for something or someone outside of us to somehow convey that worth. That worth is then illusory and easily lost because we approach things and persons as possessions. And all possessions are precarious and can be lost.

Only if we come to a sense that our worth is always already there, that it is intrinsic to us. Only then can we have a sense that it cannot be lost or taken away. And if it cannot be lost, then it need not be viewed as a possession to be defended.

Yet our experience of limitations, wounds, mortality, and even betrayals, can be a challenge to that sense of worth. I have suggested that recognition of that worth as gift, given with our very self, flows into gratitude and generosity. Similarly the challenges to that worth invite us to trust in its presence even when we cannot feel it.

The question arises as to how we may discover that worth in self, others, and the whole non-human world. It our sacred worth is intrinsic, always there from the beginning and throughout our lives, it is a question of uncovering it. Once again the suggestion is in three interrelated ways: through silent solitude, friendship, and social responsibility.

Solitude involves, in Hammarskjold’s words the longest journey, the journey inward to the core of our being. Here it is a question of coming in touch with our core, essence, soul, inmost self. This is the gradual realization that this core is not reducible to but deeper than and other than our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or experiences. Various forms of meditation, reflective reading, solitary walks, and the like are possible pathways here.

Friendship involves a mutual and gradual journey to each other’s centre. It can be a caring recognition and affirmation of that worth. Philosopher Josef Pieper, in his book, About Love, writes that love is the confirmation of another. It is the affirmation, not that it is good that he or she is this or that, clever, witty, etc., but that he or she is, that it is good that this person exists. Such friendship does not confer that sacred worth but affirms it, and helps a person come to a realization of that worth.

Social responsibility follows the same lines. It is an attempt, in whatever ways are possible to the individual, to contribute to moving a group, community, society, or culture, in the direction of establishing conditions where the worth of persons is recognized. It can take the simple form of sending cards for Amnesty International on behalf of prisoners of conscience. It can also involve meditative practices which facilitate deeper awareness and connectedness, as in Buddhist mindfulness or Taizé prayer.

In any event, we may follow whatever personal pathway is most conducive for each of us–in order to tune in to who we most truly are, to others who share our lives in some way, and to the unfolding process of life itself.

Norman King, January 07, 2023