Friday, February 6, 2009

Being a Valuable Person

62. Being a Valuable Person

Tony Hillerman writes wonderful crime novels set in the American Southwest, in the reservation country of the Navajo, the Hopi, the Zuni, and other Native American nations. In one of his books in particular he refers to a specific Zuni man as being respected by his neighbors as “a valuable man.” I was struck by this and have thought of it many times since. How many of us even think about being thought of in such terms? How much better might our culture be if we each worked towards such a goal? You could write a whole book on that subject alone.
In our culture we’re not shy about making judgements about one another. Rich or poor, nice or a jerk, handsome or ugly, the only people spared our opinions are the ones we don’t notice or can’t be bothered to notice. Everyone’s tastes vary but in general the best that we can hope for in the opinions of others is to be thought ‘nice, good-looking, and financially secure.’ Extremes of these virtues can even be a problem. For instance, being rich, gorgeous, and super-sweet can all be seen as hard to be around and untrustworthy. It’s difficult to know what to want for oneself. What does it mean to really be successful?
It’s good to be financially secure, to pay one’s bills, and to have the money to get things done. On the other hand, Lottery winners often find themselves alienated from their family and friends, and increasingly paranoid about losing their sudden wealth.
Beautiful people can be perceived as vain and unapproachable (whether they are or not) and end up lonelier and less confident than the merely attractive.
Saccharin sweet personalities can easily be seen as unintelligent or unable to defend their own interests. Working too hard to be agreeable makes them difficult to respect or to see as having likes and dislikes of their own. They seem to lack any substance worthy of respect.
The respect you receive for being well-off, attractive, and good company can be delightful but those virtues don’t necessarily have staying power and they don’t improve your community. Beauty fades, wealth can dissipate, and even personalities can sour or stiffen with time. How do you remain valuable to your community? Do you have skills or special knowledge? Are you reliable and available to those who may need you? Do you only act in your own self-interest or do you willingly act to benefit others? Are things better where you have been?
Being valuable here is not about money, though in a capitalist culture it can be hard not to think in terms of money. If I earn less money than some other employee clearly the employer finds me and my work less valuable. What other conclusion can I draw? It’s one of the most devastating aspects of unemployment, job-hunting, and retirement. If my skills are not worth money to someone else today then I am without worth today.
When your pots aren’t selling does that make them worthless? No. Buying and selling are much too complex for a snap judgement like that to be true. Similarly, the unemployed (or the underemployed) person should not allow themselves to be tricked into miscalculating their own worth. Yet it happens all the time.
Be valuable to your community and keep matters of money separate from matters of esteem. Be clear-eyed in the ways other people are valuable to you and express your appreciation. Act to place yourself in situations in which your skills and experiences can be put to work. Do not be the center of your own universe.
If everything you do and say is about you, what value can you possibly bring to anyone else’s life? Sure, you can always serve as a bad example to others, but each of us can easily be more valuable in other ways. Wherever you go, seek to be remembered as having been “a valuable person” when you have gone. That will be your true mark of success.

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