Human beings seek value. It is the very essence of us. We ask what matters, try to do valuable things, and value others. We also want to be valuable. This desire can give us meaning, but it makes us deeply vulnerable. We need the esteem of people who matter, and when we get it we feel good. And sometimes wonderful. When we don’t, conversely, we may feel wounded and worthless.
We may fear we will be shamed by others, like a fraud who will be unmasked. This is less a sense of guilt and more a fear of being seen as bad or defective or useless or ugly or weak and ultimately worthless. It is about the self as a whole, rather than something we've done. And so we fear the opinion of others and (our sense of) its power to destroy us. Perhaps we recognise the presence of this fear within, though we may just as likely deny it.
In this state we may become envious of others who, we imagine, feel worthy. "They are so confident. How they do it?" We may compare ourselves to them and feel we are lacking. This can leave us feeling depressed. We may in turn attempt instinctively to overcome that depression by feeling angry, for anger is a powerful sensation rather than a deflated one. When we are angry we are no longer ‘below’, but ‘above.’ Instead of feeling deflated when we compare ourselves to others, a person may now have contempt for their "fake superiority." "They think they are so good, but I see what idiots they are." We try to lower others by means of our scorn and criticism, so that we may be raised. Anger is strategic, albeit the strategy is instinctual rather than reflective: it achieves a feeling of righteousness.
If we could recognise our shame then we could, if we try, begin to free ourselves of it. There is a world of difference between those who are sensitive to their shame and those who have vigorously walled it off. (Never fully trust the latter character.) Through such recognition we might become more free to relate to others in a different way, as a much less judgemental person, but rather one who is more wisely compassionate, and therefore one who is much less lonely. We might ask critical questions of our shame, questions that arise from a deeper hope about what life might offer. We might admit our shame to others who are capable of holding us in their esteem regardless, and of helping us to see through our confusion and defensiveness. Acknowledgement of our shame requires our facing it. This is hard, for to be accused is to feel guilty. If something is repeated often enough then it takes on the aura of truth. And we have been repeating this story about ourselves for a very long time.
So we lose ourselves in the defensive fantasy of our superiority (and the superiority of those who esteem us) and the correlating inferiority of others. In order to believe in our superiority we hold ourselves to perfectionist standards. If we think we have achieved these standards then we feel important and elated. If we think we have failed then, rather than see ourselves as simply human, we feel depressed and worthless. We might go to counselling for this, but with the assumption that it will help us improve and eventually perfect ourselves. This can lead to an initial frustration, because a good counsellor wants instead to help us become wiser and to accept our flawed humanity, to become more compassionate toward ourselves and others, and to experience the beauty of our apparently mediocre lives. It is only from there that we can have a solid basis for any excellence in our lives, to achieve highly and be happy at the same time. How hard it can be to gain such wisdom at a felt level. We want the guarantees that, we imagine, would come from being perfect, or at least from being esteemed by and dwelling among the superior people. Without such guarantees we fear we may fall apart.
My first career was as a musician, a jazz drummer. Growing up in a small country town before moving to Melbourne at 17, I was often asked the same question about my musical aspirations: “What’s the use of that?” The question was usually posed in a tone dismissal and even scorn. It was a statement rather than a question: "Your passion has no use, so it has no worth." If I were asked that question now I would respond, “What's the use of your life?” This would not be a clever retort but rather a serious invitation to pay attention to what has value and how. For many of the things we value most, serve no use. Sure, they may have secondary values, secondary uses they serve, but their fundamental value is not functional, it does not primarily serve a purpose beyond itself. Life, beauty, goodness, truth, humanity, at their best these values do not serve a function, they are valued in their own right. As Kant would put it, they are ends in themselves, and other things gain value as means to realising these ends.
The problem with the questions those dismissive people asked me is that they were not questions, they were statements. They were expressions of certitude. Matters were already decided and they were not open to discovering something new. Philosophy is an ancient Greek word meaning 'love of wisdom.' Plato and Aristotle said that this love of wisdom "begins in wonder." Without an open space, a space of wonder and contemplation rather than pre-preemptive decision, we are blind. As Socrates spent his time showing the citizens of Athens, when we approach life with certainty we are not only ignorant, but we are ignorant of our ignorance. Socrates' fellow citizens thanked him for the lesson by putting him to death. They had made a fundamental mistake about their value, and when they perceived themselves to have been unmasked, they became angry, to the point of murder.
Without wonder and contemplation of what lies beyond our certainties we are trapped in our ignorance. People often make this very point while maintaining a closed mind. Some think that the cleverness of their mind equates automatically to such openness, but as Simone Weil wrote, "The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell." Values which are ends in themselves are things to wonder at. Our lives are valuable in this way. This shows itself in that we would sacrifice our self for the life of another whom we love. Or even for strangers, when our eyes are open to this form of value. (Certainly we might do so out of instinct, but to reduce the matter to one of instinct ignores the fact that many of us would also do so after reflection, as a choice in consequence of the value that we perceive in others simply as human beings.) In the realm of close relationships this perception of value shows itself most. We love people unconditionally because we experience them as unconditionally valuable. The logic is circular, because the value is intrinsic. When we encounter this level of value we can dig no deeper for an explanation. Instead we are invited to wonder at what we see and to become ever more attuned to it and shaped by it.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Liza Hirst
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.