The locus of our self-worth

Candle in the darkness. Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

It is clear that children learn and perform more productively when they are raised, taught, and mentored by families and teachers who value them as important and dignified, who set high standards, who create environments of love rather than fear. Are our adult needs for love so different? Human beings depend on someone other to give us our sense of worth. That is, at root we all have a profound need that someone should recognize us, and how we act is deeply motivated by our need to obtain such recognition. We all need that someone should take note of us and tell us “I have noticed you, and I like what you are doing.” The problem which Jesus raises with his listeners is the same question as we have seen in other circumstances: on which ‘other’ do I depend to be noticed and told “I like you”?

I think that there are two possibilities: I can depend entirely on my peers, in which case I will seek the “place of honour” with them. My goodness, my striving to do well, and the sort of life I lead will be a reflection of my peers, and I’ll have to do everything to keep myself well-considered by them, receiving those whom they receive and excluding those whom they exclude, so as not to run the risk of finding myself the excluded one. I run the risk that all my “I” is nothing other than a construction forged by the difficult game of keeping my reputation. There may be no other “I” at the bottom of it all, behind the “I” which I am acquiring through the little manipulations by which I search to keep my reputation. My “I” and my way of being related to the “other” are the same thing.

The other possibility is that I receive my “I” from God. But here’s the catch: God plays a different game. God, in Christ, identifies with the poor. That is what Jesus was suggesting: in order to receive your reputation, your being noticed and recognized, by God, you have to be prepared to lose the reputation which comes from the mutually reinforcing opinion and high regard of those who are regarded as exemplars of public morality and goodness, and find it among those who are held as nothing, of no worth.

Fr Michael Smith SJ

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