Nowadays self-esteem is a commonly used concept. There are shelves in the bookstores filled with books teaching how one can improve self-esteem. There are seminars given around the country by so-called pioneers in the field of self-esteem. There are millions of tapes sold every year on how to improve self-esteem. Let us examine the concept of self-esteem and it's meaning and significance in the American society.
I was a newcomer in this land knowing enough English to ask for street directions in New York, but unable to understand the avalanche of words directed at me in reply. I was working as a bus boy in an Italian restaurant downtown. That was where it happened. A friendly waiter touched my shoulder and pointed at a customer, "I know this guy, he's a businessman, Steve X., he is worth 50 million dollars!" It was the first time in my life I had heard a human being equated to the amount of money he had in the bank.
Since that memorable experience I have heard again and again in conversations, "She is worth at least 20 million dollars.” On the radio, "Mr. Y. is worth 100 million dollars.” On TV, "Mr. Z. is worth 200 million dollars." So, let us place Mr. X. next to Mr. Z., an arithmetical problem for a first-grader--which human being is worth more?
There is no other society, as far as I know, in which such a concept is employed (although in England, in Australia, in New Zealand, in South Africa they speak the same language). So what? One may ask. The problem is that it is not just an occasional expression of a concept in a particular linguistic structure, but an ingrained part of our sense of self worth, or lack of it, reflected in our language.
The language, the expressions, the idioms evolve slowly over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. At the base of the expressions are verbs carrying a particular pictorial meaning. The pictures, the images rooted in the words, have deep connection with our psychological, intellectual, moral, and spiritual make up.
The word "esteem" comes from Latin root estimare meaning, to set a value on. Setting a value on someone or something is a matter of comparison. It is a matter of creating a particular outside standard, comparing to which, will determine whether or not he, she, or it, is worthwhile or worthless. And if he, she, or it is worthwhile--to what degree? "People recognize themselves in their commodities," writes Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man; they have become what they own. They have become what they do."
As a psychotherapist in my office I have seen clients not take a low paying job that was of great interest to them, not because they could not pay bills, but because of fear that their self-esteem would be affected.
I have seen parents of a man who is a wonderful carpenter and loves his job. He is happily married to a kindergarten teacher. Both parents are depressed, "it hurts their self-esteem" to see what their boy did with his life coming from the family of doctors and lawyers.
"I was a mother," said a woman. She invested all her life into one thing only-- raising her children. Her children grew up and left. Mother felt empty, worthless, unneeded.
"I was a businessman," said a man. He worked day and night. He subordinated his whole life to building his business. He felt great about himself. He lost his business. His life lost its meaning.
In the pursuit of improving self-esteem women starve on brutal unhealthy diets, men spend hours building muscles in a gym, men and women become workaholics forgetting to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
It sees that the farther we go in the search of gaining more esteem, of having more than, being better than, being different from, the more alienated and unfulfilled we become. The more we will hear about teenagers committing suicide, unable to set a greater value on themselves.
I look for the answer to the self-esteem frenzy in the best manual for physical and psychological health I know--the Bible.
The Second Commandment states: "Thy shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness." Of course the thought of a golden calf comes to one's mind. Yes, that was a physical manifestation of a graven image. But, we are not physical beings only. So, any intellectual or emotional man-made standard (a particular level of achievement, a certain predetermined standard of living) is image making. What is it if not idolatry--creating a specific goal of how or where one is supposed to be and then subordinating one's whole life trying to align oneself to that image.
In the book of Genesis (I,26) we read: "And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." Man is created to be in the image and likeness of the Creator. And, in the book of Exodus the Creator replies to being asked about his name: "I am that I am." Not, I'm the magnificent. Not, I'm the powerful. Not, I'm the creator. Not, I'm the eternal, but I am that I am.
So, as beings "in the image and likeness" of the Creator we are creators of our own lives. We can choose to continue the race for greater and greater estimated (value of ourselves), or we can choose to turn to confidence (Confidence--to trust, faith), Faith. Faith that we are that we are, without any label or comparison. We are free to do and to be what our hearts are telling us, not to be what is popular or approved by some outside standards or fashions. Then we might learn simply to be. Then who we are might express itself in its uniqueness and fullness. Then we might live our greatest potential in the vision of Nikos Kazanstakis: "I asked the almond tree, " Sister, speak to me of God, and the almond tree blossomed."