Every Sunday, as part of my calling in the Young Women, I stand with the girls and recite the Young Women theme, including the list of values. Most of the time, these values are so familiar that they flow from my tongue without my consciously thinking about them (though I do get tripped up by virtue, which wasn’t one of the values when I was a girl).
But sometimes, I find myself lingering on certain values, trying to puzzle out their implications in my daily life, and in the daily lives of the girls I serve. Some time ago, I found myself discussing individual worth with a friend (and fellow leader). What does it mean to have individual worth? How do we acknowledge that worth in ourselves and others?
My friend offered this insight: maybe individual worth isn’t just about recognizing that we have value to God, but about recognizing that each of us values ourselves on a different, individualized scale.
George Eliot writes about this individual vantage point in her novel Middlemarch:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon [her husband]. . . than to conceive with that distinction which is no longer reflection but feeling–an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects–that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.
In other words, we all view our world (ourselves and others) through the prism of our own values. For most of us at Segullah, this worldview includes values stemming from our religious beliefs. But all of us embrace values that aren’t strictly dictated by our religion: a value for order, for creativity, for empathy, for physical health and activity, for personal appearance. We find ways to support our values in our belief system—but not all of us prioritize these values in the same way.
But our individual prioritizing of values informs how we value ourselves—and how we value others.
In our discussion, my friend pointed to herself and her mother. Her mother is a trim, attractive woman in her late fifties who takes pleasure in exercising and maintaining her figure. Because of this, it’s sometimes hard for her to sympathize with her daughter, who doesn’t share the same priorities. It might be easy—especially for those of us who struggle to exercise regularly or eat better—to dismiss her priorities as shallow; after all, these priorities are primarily based on looks. But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to be healthy or wanting to look good; in fact, we can find doctrinal basis for taking care of our bodies. The problem comes when we look at these different values and instead of simply acknowledging the difference, we mark those other values as somehow wrong—or at the least, less significant.
Take another example. In the nearly eleven years that I’ve known her, my mother-in-law and I have had some misunderstandings arise out of our different values. For my mother-in-law, having an immaculate house reflects her worth as a mother and a wife; a clean and peaceful home is part of how she cares for her family. For me, on the other hand, much of my self-worth is tied up in my intelligence and creativity: I feel like I have value when my mind is engaged in writing, reading, or otherwise creating. I find I value those who demonstrate intelligence, and I want to be valued by them. (Of course, I could write another post on the virtues and problems with this approach; for now, it’s enough to simply acknowledge that this is how I am.) So when I forego mopping my floor after my kids are in bed to write another chapter in my fledgling novel, I feel better about myself; but I worry that my mother-in-law sees my messy floor as a sign that I don’t, perhaps, care as much about her son and grandchildren as I should.
I find that I’m much more sympathetic about her perspective if I see it in these terms: as values stemming from a different sense of individual worth. As Eliot wrote, my mother-in-law has “an equivalent centre of self”—her worth is no less than (and no more than) mine, though we view our worlds differently.
Part of our moral growth—and part of the process of claiming our individual worth—is learning to recognize this difference. As I look around my ward—particularly at the young women I serve—I wonder if we wouldn’t all benefit from trying to see others not through our own lens of values, but through their own lens. Some of our young women value dress: they embrace creative hairstyles and are always immaculately turned out. Others are more athletic, and their sense of self is bound up in their physical abilities. Recognizing these individualized value systems doesn’t diminish our own value, but it allows us to recognize the value in others, to see them as they see themselves.
What informs your own sense of worth? What helps you recognize the individual worth of others? How do you keep in mind their “equivalent centre[s] of self” in your interactions with them?