I will warn you from the start that this is a messy blog post. It’s an admittedly self-indulgent stream of thought (though what blog isn’t self indulgent?), flowing from my current mental state as I experience a phase of rapid change, growth (and growing pains), and self-discovery. Perhaps some of what I’m going through will resonate with the misfits or the seekers among us.
As I am beginning to navigate completely new branches along my life’s journey I find myself reevaluating what it means to value oneself and to discover what elements are critical to nurturing our wellbeing.
Self-worth is a tricky thing. What is the value of a healthy mental, emotional, and physical state of being? How do you find an appropriate balance between confidence and humility, or create personal boundaries that protect your wellbeing but still allow growth and healthy interaction? The answers are individual to each of us, though I imagine at their deepest roots they all grow from a common pool fed by the desire for love and safety.
Ironically, the most common way we seek to define our own self-worth is through our relationships with others. We seek validation, we seek admiration, we seek support and understanding. It’s only natural, as social beings, that we learn to understand ourselves through the eyes of others. But when our identity and the decisions we make in our lives become dependent on how we think others will respond, or what they would do in our place, we lose our true sense of self. Our self-worth diminishes. Not in absolute terms, as we are all invaluable beings at heart; but in relative terms, when we live based on external validation, it’s easy for our internal reality to suffer.
I think that’s been the hardest lesson so far in my life – I cannot rely on anyone else, no matter how well-intentioned, how highly esteemed, how wise or intuitive, to show me my true ‘self’ or my purpose. It wouldn’t be fair to think anyone could do so, even if they wanted to. No series of rituals, workshops, books, or teachers can do the work for us. The external can guide and shape our understanding, perhaps give us sign posts and context to help us navigate, but until we can be present with ourselves, quietly and openly, self-worth remains obscure.
Some of us are born with an innately strong concept of our own value, moving confidently through life as if riding the crest of a wave that flows unwavering toward shore. For the rest of us, we either spend our lives ignoring that nagging internal pull toward self-discovery, or dedicate ourselves to that discovery process (obsess over it, even). We may discover ourselves through a spiritual community, or through a job, or in the way we serve our friends or family. We may discover ourselves in the moments when we are isolated from community – or when the whole idea of community expands to include the community of cells, microbes, nutrients, and currents of energy that surround and comprise us.
I’ve always wished I felt like I ‘belonged’ somewhere. I’ve always been drawn toward a sense of spirituality in the broadest sense, but while I’ve explored many religions I have never been able to completely immerse myself in one set of religious principles. I have always found flaws and hypocrisy and disappointment in dogma. I’ve perhaps felt my most spiritual in nature, surrounded by the wisdom of billions of years of evolution represented in plants and animals that live entirely in the present moment without apology.
And despite going as far as obtaining a PhD in ecology, I never felt like I completely fit in with the science world I worked in for so long – I was never ‘quantitative’ enough, I didn’t feel comfortable with some of the institutional norms of academia or research, and I didn’t have the intense drive to publish scientific papers or climb the competitive ladder to be a tenured professor. It’s the same politically; I tend to resonate with more liberal values but also shy away from some of the more extreme approaches or views on any end of the political or value spectrum, always seeing the complex grey area in between that no one likes to talk about.
I never felt jock enough for the jocks even when I played varsity, never goth enough even at my most existential times, never hippy enough even when I was leading protests at UC Berkeley. I’ve always been some indescribable blend of personalities, thoughts, emotions, and values. Just me, just some living, breathing being in this place and time accompanied by my insecurities and inability to fully merge into an identity. But perhaps a lack of belonging is what ignites the drive for self-discovery in the first place? How could one yearn to learn who they are if they already feel they belong? All I know is that for better or worse, my lack of a reliable in-group has pushed me to continue to explore who I am and how I ‘fit’ into this world.
And I think, for the first time in this life, I am beginning to appreciate my lack of singular identity rather than wish I fit neatly into some box that could securely define who I am. Or, at least, I am becoming confident of who I am, accepting that I am a ‘seeker’, a searcher for personal meaning who probably won’t find it in one single place or community, but through the process of wandering and forging a path between them. And possibly, I don’t need to actually be seeking at all, but rather just let myself Be so that I can know myself more deeply.
There is a growing field of social science dedicated to the study of ‘bridging organizations’, entities that connect actors (e.g., other organizations, individuals, etc) operating across different scales and sectors, thus promoting the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and coordinated action among them. I dedicated a large portion of my graduate thesis to studying the role of bridging organizations in facilitating environmental conservation, in fact. I only recently, however, considered that perhaps an individual who straddles many communities, groups, or ‘identities’ might be a sort of bridging organization in themselves, bringing together people, ideas, and ways of thinking that might otherwise remain siloed. Similar to someone who likes to study many subjects rather than dive deep into only one, a bridging individual may never fully identify with any of the actors to which they link, but instead synthesizes meaning out of the sum of individual connections.
Perhaps a ‘bridger’ might even bring people together in new and fulfilling ways, and help in some small way to break down barriers between competing world views. It may not always feel comfortable, warm, or fuzzy to be the bridge between disparate communities, and sometimes it might feel like you are being unduly tread upon or being stretched to the point of breaking. But if you can find a way to embody your in-betweenness with grace and curiosity, you can learn to value your role and your ever-shifting, blended identity as your true self, just as valid as those identities resting on solid ground.
I’ve never made things super easy for myself, but with challenges can come significant growth, even if the process is painful. We can never operate with full knowledge and we will make ‘mistakes’ along the way (if there is such thing as a mistake, rather than a series of lessons). We will feel uncomfortable, we will be judged, ostracized even. We will stumble, we will cry, we will scream, we will laugh, we will feel exhilarated then terrified then exhilarated again.
Perhaps, eventually, we will find a balance somewhere in the middle of these extremes where we can relax into soft bliss, acceptance, and joy without fear or the need to overdose on adrenaline. That is my goal, at least. In the meantime, I’m going to do my best to enjoy the unexpected twists and turns in my little personal journey. If we pass each other, I hope we stop and share a smile of acknowledgement at the miracle of two paths crossing, if even for an instant.