Scrolling through social media, we swim daily in a sea of memes, motivations and messages which affirm our lives—and all before 7am! Find something inspiring? Like and share. Find something triggering? Block and delete. But the question of our worth cannot be answered simply by our daily diet of feel-good digital content. It is a deeply confronting question because it demands that we examine our standard for a life well lived. What is the measure of a worthwhile life?
Three ways in which we attempt to answer this question are through stuff, self-care and selflessness.
Stuff. A good education, a well-paid job, a loving partner, 2.4 children and a healthy body seem to be self-evident indicators of a great life. Education demonstrates that we’ve worked hard, a top job that we’ve worked harder. A partner and progeny show that we’re loved and that we haven’t been rejected. But what happens if we don’t make the grade? What happens if we’re made redundant, our loved ones pass away, or our health is compromised? Does the loss of these things–and they are very good things too–mean a loss or decline in the value of our lives? Surely not.
We know that exterior stuff can’t truly satisfy, so instead we look within. We recite positive affirmations, practise gratitude, detox and diet. Our mood improves and we face life challenges with a renewed sense of purpose. Self-care is healthy and healing for many of us. And yet, the reality is we don’t always feel good about ourselves. We don’t always eat clean and workout dirty. We don’t always have something profound to say when life gets hard. Does a dip in our personal wellbeing and inner peace undermine the value of our lives?
Rather than looking within, we sometimes opt for looking out. We redirect our focus and energies onto the needs of others. We stand with the marginalised and give to the less fortunate. We campaign and call for justice. Genuinely seeking out the liberation of others is a beautiful act. Doing the work of justice is a rewarding and exhausting pursuit. Such self-sacrifice has undoubtedly been instrumental in the moral progress we have made over millennia. But can we ever reach perfection? It seems there will always be a cause for which to contend. And who takes care of the heroes? It’s impossible to always be saving the day; we must take some time to put down our capes.
Perhaps stuff, self-care, selflessness or a combination of all three will always be found wanting. Maybe we should stop taking ourselves so seriously and throw out the idea of a worthwhile life altogether.
In the latest offering of the Jurassic Park franchise, a young and brilliant scientist reflects upon the age of the earth and the dinosaurs which traversed it long before humans ever did. She muses that the very idea of a planet billions of years old and the existence of species much stronger and fiercer that our own should humble us. Instead of looking for stuff, looking within or without, we should look back and bask in the wonder of our insignificance. Tiny specks in the expanse of time, we are lives of spectacular mediocrity. And this view is not just the stuff of fiction.
In his essay, ‘Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life?’, philosopher Peter Singer asks a chilling question: “Why should we believe that the mere fact that a being is a member of the species Homo Sapiens endows its life with some unique almost infinite value?” In this vein, there is nothing about being human that legitimises any presumption of ourselves and our lives as having intrinsic worth. Whilst it’s possible to subscribe to this view intellectually, can we do so practically? Is it liveable? In the day-to-day grind of joys and injustices, we behave as though good things that come our way are deserved and bad things are unfair, precisely because we intuitively believe that we are fundamentally people of worth. And what if this intuition is correct, not just a fuzzy feeling?
Moreover, the stuff, self-care and our attempts at selflessness also fail to deliver a lasting sense of worth because of their impermanence. They’re fleeting. They’re not sustainable. They’re only parts of a story that comes to an abrupt and unfulfilling end. However, the Christian worldview tells a different story. We are encouraged to look up—not back, within or without. We look up to a God who has created us with inherent dignity and value because we are made in his image. As theologian Ekemini Uwan writes, “The image of God, also known as the imago Dei, is not a supplementary gift or addendum, not is it accidental. The imago Dei is irrevocable.” So when we lose our stuff, when we feel we’re not enough, when we can’t cure the ills of this world, and when we feel insignificant, we can look up.
We look up to God who has stepped down into human history in the person of Jesus and affirmed our lives as worthwhile.
 Ekemini Uwan, Truth’s Table: Black Women’s Musings on Life, Love and Liberation (2022)