productivity, contribution, and self worth

I guess it came with growing up relatively poor, or having good role models, that I don’t tie my self worth to having a fancy car or fancy clothes (although I do have a lot of clothes – many of them still secondhand) or how much money I make.

But how do people define their self-worth?  How much you mean to your friends?  How much you mean to your husband (wife/significant other/etc.)?  What a good mother you are?  How clean your house is?  How healthy you are?  How much you contribute to charity?  How much you know?  How educated you are?  How much your job, or your beyond job activity contributes to society as a whole?

The job thing and the education thing contributes a great deal to how I tend to feel about myself.  As an overachiever child, this plays out in bizarre ways in adulthood.

T-storm talked a lot awhile ago about Erikson’s theories of lifespan development.  I never considered a career as a psychologist, but of all the things he’s come home with from his counseling grad classes, this to me is the most interesting.  Hooray lifespan development!

(This is also kind of funny, as we re-watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World last night, full of slow motion silhouettes indicating the vs. battles.  Now I’m going to think of things like shame & stagnation dissolving into a giant flurry of coins.)

  1. Basic trust vs. Mistrust – infancy.  It’s complicated, yes, but moreover, don’t screw over your kid.  (This is also indicative to me that most of the kids who I teach who were born under greatly less than ideal circumstances are indeed, mostly screwed.  Time to start drinking now, everyone!)  0-1 years old.
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame – potty training.  This one sounds interesting.  Then they have Important Names, because after this the human is a functional child.
  3. Purpose – Initiative vs. Guilt.  Is a child capable of dressing themselves, or are they cranky and develop guilt because they cannot?  Ages 3-6.
  4. Competence – Industry vs. Inferiority.  Big time comparison in abilities among children.  They recognize where they are left wanting.  Apparently, Erikson would be a fan of the participation ribbon?  Ages 6-11.  (I see this one a lot in kids.)
  5. Fidelity – Identity vs. Role Confusion.  Who am I and what am I doing?  Maybe the helicopter parents who have dominated the oncoming generations have moved back this phase?  Sometimes I think kids in general just coast through, pushing themselves to achieve and get into college and do well.  It’s the Reality Bites paradigm.  Gen X really screwed up the curve on this one.  Ages 12-20.
  6. Then adulthood stages: Intimacy vs. Isolation.  Ages 20-24.  This is where people pair up.  Again, considering that the average age for marriages in the United States is 29 for females and 32 for males (we were right on target), it seems this phase has been moved back for a lot of us.  Thanks, Winona Ryder & Ethan Hawke.
  7. Generativy vs. Stagnation.  Kids or no kids.  Productivity in careers or not.  Ages 25-64.  But seriously!?  That’s 40 years of doing stuff!!  I realized the other day I will likely be working another 40 years.  I’m cool with that, but wow.  I haven’t yet lived 40 years.  I have no idea what that feels like.  Gah!
  8. Ego integrity vs. Despair.   The final stage of life.  Compared to that bit as described in Shakespeare?  (I forget which play, but I want to say As You Like It, which is my favorite).

The last stage one is super depressing, because among our happy, vibrant neighbors who are mostly gay male couples and unbelievably nice, we have our nextdoor neighbor.  He is obviously close to his end, he lives alone, he had family staying with him for a bit (which we saw very clearly during one of our former late night fire drills, where the building unloaded at 11:30 on a Sunday night).  His back is so bad that he walks like an upside down J.  They call him “Doc”, because he used to be chiropractor.  His apartment, from what we’ve seen when his door is open, is packed with boxes of old papers, weird stuff taped to walls, etc.  When we had concerns over pests, our super asked us if we’d ever seen Doc’s place, where he’d kept every piece of paper he’d ever gotten in his life.  And he watches and/or listens to religious, conservative TV & radio ALL DAY LONG with the volume turned all the way up.

And I don’t mean to be mean but he’s a bit of a creepy type.  The first time I spoke to him, he told me a joke that somehow involved shooting a horse and then my husband.  This was before T-storm and I got married.

All I know is that I don’t want to end up like that.  I think that oddly enough, when we first moved in together, I was not working over the summer, but I had weird concerns over death and purpose and crap.  It was kind of bad, but I got past it.  I don’t know that meeting my neighbor helped.  Being with T-storm and continuing to work helped, as well.

When I went through a religious phase as I was younger (I grew up relatively religiously, but had intense phases, and then didn’t have a big break-up  – it just sort of faded away) I used to have debates over what was more important with friends.  I asked one friend, who’d actually been a huge on and off crush in my life, “What good is God’s word if you’re not doing God’s work?”  He gave me some B.S. answer, which at the time I knew was B.S. but I still discussed this sort of stuff with him.

I used to get really annoyed with people who I knew, especially in my hometown, who would do shitty or unproductive things, and then quote scripture.  They would be lazy or or helpless or whatever, and then self-congratulate because of how much they read the Bible.  Or their faith faded away, sometimes in big fits or just slowly over time, like me.

I don’t know.  Even at my most religious, I always felt that it wasn’t about what you believed, or even how nice you were or how interesting or whatever, but what you did with that knowledge or capability.  I used Hitler and my dad as examples, in very different perspectives.  That’s probably where my first major relationship broke down, as I kept working my ass off after college in doing something.  That first major boyfriend dude lost his ambition.  He gave in to the mid-20s hopelessness way too quickly.

I’d say that both T-storm and I work in socially productive jobs, and one of the things that I loved about him most when I met him was that if he had something he wanted, although he wasn’t crazy ambitious like me, he did it.  I admired that he’d gone and taught overseas for a number of years.  He said to me at first, “Well, I talked about it for a long time before I did it.”  I responded, “But the point being that you did it.  You aren’t one of those people who will say, ‘Oh I was gonna do this, and didn’t,’ you did do it.”

Of course, no one who is overworked and strung out is worth much, even to the cause they’re contributing to.  Whatever you think of the whole bizarro Kony 2012 thing, Jason Russell is not doing anyone any favors, not even himself and his purportedly desired 9 more children.

It all comes back to a balance thing.  You have to have self-worth, you have to be at least somewhere toward that Maslow’s hierarchy dealio before you can be any good to anyone else.  As my good friend E says, “Your cup has to overflow before you have any to give anyone else.”  Like they say on a plane, fix your own oxygen mask before you help someone else.

And I guess if you’re helping someone else along any of those eight phases, to find the more positive outcome, you’re doing something worthwhile.  And you can feel good about that.

And then if you’re like T-storm and need to play Skyrim to relax, and recharge before helping someone else, then that’s good, too.  While your wife sits and listens to the live acoustic iTunes exclusive of Florence + the Machine’s “The Dog Days Are Over” and cries while she’s writing, because that’s how she recharges.

*note: go read Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society. Also, it’s a very productive cry, so don’t worry.  But I’d highly recommend you go buy that track.  It’s like therapy with handclaps!


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