We live in a time of low-self esteem of epic proportions. Despite our material success [versus much of the world] our citizens suffer from depression and low self-esteem at an alarming rate. Suicide is an all to common consequence of chronic sadness, unfulfilled expectations and sense of desperation and futility.
The Dalai Lama upon first hearing of this epidemic in the West was quite astounded. He truly did not understand the concept. In the culture of Tibetan Buddhism, pride and lack of humility was the much greater risk for any individual. All Buddhists understand that they have ‘Buddha-nature’. All are capable of reaching enlightenment within any one lifetime.
So we must conclude that feelings of low-self esteem are more cultural than innate in human beings. But why so?
I believe it has much to do with our culture and society’s obsession with competition and ‘winning’. We honor the ultimate winners, those whose success is indicative of superior talent or drive. Those who fail to achieve such levels are ignored or even derided. We believe that competition is superior to cooperation. We believe that if there are winners, there must be losers.
Now, this is not to diminish the accomplishments and achievements of those whose efforts place them on ‘top’. But in the process, those who cannot ‘be there’ or who choose a different life path are often regarded as inferior or lesser human beings.
In more traditional societies, individuals can find their sense of self-worth within the context of what they do and how well they do it. A fantastic teacher, cook, carpenter, plumber, maintenance individual etc….. feels no sense of inadequacy. ‘Success’ becomes how well we perform what we find ourselves doing rather than what we are doing at the time.
Students who fail to make the ‘top’ colleges or are not hired for the ‘top’ firms can easily slip into a depression which seems irrational to outsiders but which is a direct consequence of the precepts of the culture in which they live. When we grow up valuing ourselves by our SAT scores or the number of teams we are on, those who do not quite ‘make it’ are left regarding themselves as unworthy ‘losers’.
Even Darwinian evolutionary principles are often misunderstood as celebrating the most aggressive or most competitive in the history of living beings. After all, the dinosaurs have died out, while insects persist.
Finding an ecological niche in which species cooperative with other living creatures is a much more valuable trait in evolutionary terms.
A metaphysical perspective sees each individual as an embodied soul. We each carry a spark of divinity. Our ‘net worth’ is not measured by dollars or by fame. Those who ‘succeed’ by society’s standards are often not the most content nor the most spiritually mature.
Our happiness and contentment is far more a product of how our minds interpret our lives, how well we love and are loved, than by the accolades of society as a whole.
Our character and compassion become our karma. We need not concern ourselves by who finishes first, but understand that any one lifetime is an opportunity to grow and evolve. Not quite getting it together in any one lifetime may be unfortunate but not tragic.
The good news is this–we’ll have many opportunities to get it ‘right’ in future lives. Let us live each one to the fullest without diminishing who we really are.