I have written frequently that my fundamental conviction is that there is a gifted sacred worth to each and every human being, and even beyond that to all that dwells on this earth. This conviction is expressed religiously in the belief that human beings are fashioned in the image of God and in the golden rule that is found in all religions. In her Charter for Compassion, Karen Armstrong maintains that “the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” and calls us “to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being.” In the preamble to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations grounds its assertion of human rights and corresponding responsibilities in the dignity of each and every human being.
The questions that arise include how this conviction is expressed in attitude and action in relation to oneself, to others, to communities, social organizations, and even to national and international relations. A core issue, however, is how does each of us recognize this conviction in ourselves. Many of us, myself included, struggle not to have a sense that we are not worth much, that we are of little significance. This sense can readily arise from our experience of limitations, weakness, failures, disappointments, and all the things that make us feel that our lives are not what they should be or could be or ought to be.
Henri Nouwen has an interesting approach to this matter. He says that we are all needy persons. We are affected by a neediness for affection, attention, affirmation, and praise, as well as influence, power, and success. He says that this neediness comes from an experience of woundedness that causes us to question our worth. He suggests that this sense comes from the feeling, often not conscious, that we are rejected, that we are not quite acceptable. Frequently, our neediness can lead us to wound others if we try to force them to give us what they cannot give. Our own woundedness may well come from others in the past who have hurt us because they were so needy. Nouwen says that this woundedness is essentially the experience of not being loved.
The underlying issue is that neither we nor anyone else can provide the unconditional, irrevocable love for which there is an insatiable thirst in the human heart and which could affirm unmistakably that we are of worth.
The result is that our sense of worth is always fragile. How can we achieve that conviction, if only partially? A first response is to let go of the expectation that another can provide this need for us. Rather than regard one another as possible answers, we can approach one another as fellow questioners, as fellow seekers.
Another approach is to cultivate a sense of gratitude for our life, and to help one another have experiences of gratitude, however small. Most mornings, for example, I go for a walk in early morning, while it is still a time of winter darkness. At this time, almost everyone who passes, usually on a similar walk, greet each other, with a wave of the hand or a good morning word. It is very simple but refreshing. Sometimes, I encounter a rabbit, or a deer, or even a skunk, all of which evoke a kind of inner smile.
On a grander scale, a friend once told me of his experience at his place in the Point Pelee region. It was mid-winter. and no one else was around. As he shut all lights off before leaving left his place to return to the city, he was immersed in total darkness. He was groping his way to his car, when the moon suddenly appeared from behind a cloud and shed a pale light on everything. He recalled how, at that moment, he had an overwhelming experience that he was loved.
Another friend once told me that she felt a lack of understanding from her parents, but when she was with animals around her rural surroundings, she had an uncanny sense of at-homeness.
One author, Wayne Muller, says that we are often afflicted at once by a more surface need to fit in and a deeper sense of not belonging. Yet, he recalls, by the very fact that we are breathing, we do belong, we are part of the whole ecosystem of the earth, not simply its present, but also its past. It is striking that quiet attention to our breathing is a fundamental form of meditation in both Eastern and Western traditions.
These kind of experiences, brought to our awareness, can evoke a tone of gratitude, a gratefulness that can almost imperceptibly wear away feelings of resentment and hostility. They can move us slowly to a sense that our life is a gift rather than a burden or a mere accident. From here there can unfold over time a recognition that our life is a precious gift to cultivate and share.
This realization, however elusive, and readily lost sight of, can nonetheless, help us develop an understanding that this valuable gift is there from the beginning, before any decision or action that we make and is not dependent on any decision or action. As a result, our sacred worth is not a benefit to acquire or prove, but a gift to accept. As something already there, we need not seek it from someone or something–who cannot confer it anyway. It is rather something to accept and to live by, even when we do not feel it. We may help or even hinder one another in recognizing this worth but cannot give it to or take it away from anyone else, including ourselves.
What all these thoughts come down to is that there are many avenues to develop and maintain a sense of our sacred worth, however elusive and even fragile it may seem. These include a simple attention to our breathing or other forms of meditation in solitude, the experience of the world of nature on this planet earth which is our basic home, simple acts of kindness to one another or more enduring friendships in which we do not expect everything but do share our life journey, and also a participation in struggles for compassion and justice in our wider communities, societies, and world.
May all of you more and more uncover your own gifted and sacred worth, despite–and possibly on occasion through–any of life’s sorrows, and may we always help one another to move more fully towards lives of gratitude and generosity.
Norman King, January 25, 2021