For five years I lead seminars for a company offering personal transformation courses. The training program for seminar leaders is one of the most rigorous leadership programs in the country. I probably put 30 hours of volunteer time a week: calling participants, listening to training tapes, coaching calls, in-office training sessions. My life was about being a seminar leader – everything else was second.
It was a lot of work but my reward was directly changing people’s lives. I could (and was expected to) help someone go from never speaking to her Mom to calling her mom on the phone and offering an apology. That ability was the epitome of empowerment: I was empowered to help my seminar participants and they were empowered to make their lives better.
Being a seminar leader offered something else, something I have never been able to replace: when I walked into a room, people listened to me. Not because I was “all powerful” but because of what I could offer as a seminar leader. Mostly it wasn’t personal, although I had a lot of friends at the office I volunteered at. I could be any where in the world and with that particular name badge on, people paid attention to what I had to say. The organization called this “being known” – an acknowledgment of who someone is and that they make a difference. Everyone was “known” at this company (meaning, everyone was thought to make a difference) but certainly the more people volunteered, and the more responsible they were to the company, the more they were known in this way. I loved that feeling of being cared about by so many people and listened to like what I had to say mattered. That feeling was how I determined my self-worth. I mattered to others so I mattered to me.
My life is very different now. I spend most of my time either alone or with my child. L loves me but she doesn’t relate to me in this way – she isn’t capable of appreciation yet. J loves me and appreciates me, but he can’t provide that same feeling of self-worth that I got while leading (nor should he). I’d never go back to that life where others came before me and my family nor am I in sync with the company anymore. So if I am not making a difference at that same level and that is where I fueled my self-worth, how do I fuel it now? What can possibly compare to that?
The past 12 months have been a lesson in futility to answer this question. I have discovered that nothing will compare. Leading those seminars is a “gold chalice” kind of experience, one that can’t be duplicated and is put up on a pedestal never to be reached again. I keep trying, though. I begin projects in the hope that I might replicate that feeling of being known and mattering to others only to be disappointed, depressed and self-depreciating. I am writing a book that intends to make a difference for people but writing is a lonely art form replete with self-doubt. Attempts to lead in Democratic circles have been met with either indifference or outright resistance. I love my blog because I love writing, but the game of increasing views and comments is exhausting. And Twitter popularity? Oh, goodness, I am trapped like a rat on a sinking ship on that one.
Nothing I am doing now is enough to fill the void as long as actions I do now are compared to an irreplaceable past. I can’t win even though I’m the referee.
Abraham Lincoln believed that “ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him.” (pg. 100, Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin) Clearly this philosophy motivated him to be one of our greatest presidents, but for regular people, I don’t agree. I think this is a trap that leads us to a never ending future of worrying about how our contemporaries view us. And future generations? That is more weight on my shoulders than I am willing to bear. I am beginning to get the feeling that my self-worth is based only on the value that I give it. I could look through my life and say, “I didn’t win a Nobel Peace Prize, a Pulitzer or an Oscar, so I guess I’m not worth much.” Or I could say, “I did great things when I was dedicated to making a difference. Those people’s lives are never the same because of me, so I am worth a lot.”
Rather than look to what I did or didn’t do before to determine my value, I’ve decided to simply say “I am worth a lot” and let the feeling of self-worth motivate me to do great (though perhaps small) things. I’m starting with volunteering at a local non-profit community support organization that helps people in crisis with paying bills, rent and gas, provides groceries through its food pantry and goods through its resale store. It isn’t a room of one hundred people hanging on my every word, but I know that when I walk in the door for my volunteer shift, people in that office will be very glad to see me.