Why Do You Want To Be A Better Person?

self-esteemAwhile back, there was an article on Cracked.com that got a lot of play in my social networks. It was called “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person” and it was all about how the only way to make the world care about you is to do something useful and do it really well. I did not feel the same glee about this article that many of my friends did. In fact, I really disliked it.

But I couldn’t figure out why. I mean, I am trying to do something pretty well. I am engaged in the business of trying to make the world care about me (i.e. winning status) and I am doing it in pretty much the way that the author recommends.

But I guess what I disliked were the unexamined premises of the article. A large part of that Cracked.com article is devoted to mocking the separation that people have formed between their own self-worth and the societal assessment of their worth. To myself, I’m the most important thing in the world. But to society, I’m utterly insignificant. Some people try to reconcile this contradiction by fostering an artificial sense of self-worth: they invent reasons—“they’re nice” or whatever—for why they’re really worthwhile. The article says that this wrong. You have no worth outside that which society assigns you. This means we have only one option: gaining status is a way to make society love us as much as we love ourselves.

And that would be fine…if it actually worked. The article pretty literally says that if you gain some high-status accomplishments, then you’ll stop hating yourself.

That’s not true. I don’t know how to put it much more baldly than that. Accomplishment does not cure self-hatred.

I feel like I know a little bit about this. I’m in this program that’s kinda hard to get into. I’ve sold stories. I’ve gotten a few good reviews. It’s all totally low-level stuff, but it also makes me an object of envy to plenty of people. And there are times when that feels pretty good.

But when you start to rely on and trust in that feeling, then you’re lost. Because your status isn’t actually real. It’s something that exists mostly in your head. It’s basically just a list of all the reasons why you’re better than everyone else. And eventually those reasons will be undercut.

As you rise, you inevitably come into contact with people who are a bit higher than you. If you publish a short story, then you meet people who’re winning awards. If you publish a novel, then you meet people who are best-sellers. And no matter how hard you try to qualify your own status (“Oh, I’m younger than him” or “Oh, I haven’t had the material advantages that she’s had”), someone will always come along, eventually, who is better than you in every appreciable way. In fact, usually you’re lucky if there’s just one someone—usually there are a lot of them. In this world, there are thousands and thousands of people who are younger, better-looking, more talented, better-published, and more charming than me. And I will never be better than them.

And when I think about that, it really doesn’t matter that I am doing better than, literally, millions of other aspiring writers…all I can think about is not being the best. And it sometimes comes close to driving me crazy.

If my self-image was entirely based on being better than other people (as it sometimes has been, during some dark periods of my life), then I’d either have to create delusional castles in the sky in order to maintain that belief or I’d slide into a very dark place (probably both at once, actually).

But it’s not.

You know, it sounds super cliché to say but I do think that I have an intrinsic worth. I don’t think that necessarily means you need to value me, but it does mean that I value myself. Valuing yourself is really what gaining status is all about. Gaining status isn’t about proving yourself to other people…it’s about proving yourself to yourself—it’s about affirming that you really are worth something: “See, all these people value me, so I can value myself!”

But why bother? Why not just cut out the middleman? There’s no one else back here behind my eyes. I don’t need to live my life for an audience, and I don’t need the approval of other people in order to do what I want to do. No one really owes me anything, but I also don’t need to apologize for being super interested in myself.

I think we get confused by the statement “everyone is special.” There’s something monstrously meaningless about it. If everyone is special, then no one is special. And to a certain extent, that is true. We cannot have a society that regards everyone as special. From society’s point of view, specialness is unequally distributed. But that is no reason why you need to internalize society’s point of view. From your point of view, you are special. Instead of engaging in a kind of guerilla action to get society to agree with you, the trick is just to learn to live with this asymmetry.

There’s really no other option. In my short life, I’ve already come to realize that no amount of status is ever going to satisfy me: even best-selling authors torture themselves by thinking about all the awards they haven’t won and all the respect they haven’t gotten.

This is a really obvious conclusion, but I actually only realized it about eight or nine months ago. It was very freeing. I still pursue status, but in a more light-hearted way. It’s no longer a matter of life or death. It’s a game.

5 thoughts on “Why Do You Want To Be A Better Person?

  1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    Hmm. I’m a bit befuddled. I, like others, loved the Cracked article.

    Yet I find myself in complete agreement with your rebuttal of it.

    OK, now I’ve got thesis and antithesis; just have to wait for synthesis to bubble up.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think people liked it because it’s sort of a generic kick in the pants: you really _do_ need to work a lot harder if you’re going to achieve the things you want in life. Sometimes I want to tell that to people myself. If you were to really internalize that article, I think you’d achieve a lot and people would envy and like you a lot more. But I also don’t think you’d necessarily be happier.

  2. Anonymous

    Thanks for this. I find it fascinating that an adult could seriously conclude that their self worth should boil down to the value others put on them. You would think that view would have been refuted by their high-school experience or reading about one famous suicide. That is not to say one should not strive, but if you are striving because you think you will be loved then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. I think it would do them good to read Marcus Aurelius. @jsmusgrave

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I’m not sure people consciously think of it in those terms. But there are plenty of adults who clearly do use the value that others put on them as a huge part of their self-worth. Like, look at all the celebrities and politicians who get really, really angry about criticism. Why are they so angry? It’s because criticism undermines their identity (as a famous artist or great statesman or whatever).

      Also, I liked Marcus Aurelius, but I did find it really funny (and revelatory). Like, if the emperor of the known world is SOOOOO mopey, then clearly there’s no hope for the rest of us =)

      1. jsmusgrave

        Marcus had to deal with suffering like any of us, and surely Epictetus had more reason to be somewhat down. It’s common to read Marcus as “mopey.” But I think that’s a misunderstanding of him and what his writing was. If you enjoyed Marcus and can gird yourself for some slightly intimidating reading, I suggest you look up Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel. Pierre shows what Marcus was doing, in writing the Meditations, was a traditional Stoic spiritual practice. According to Hadot, his writing should not be read as a direct view into Marcus’s emotions. Instead, it was a structured form of contemplation. But enough about that. Thanks for your article. @jsmusgrave

Comments are closed