When I first began teaching school, lessons designed to build students' self-esteem were a popular instructional tool. The theory was that the more keenly students felt their own value, the more they would achieve in the classroom.
A recent study, however, suggests something different. It says that a high opinion of oneself alone isn't an accurate measure of future success (see The Christian Science Monitor, "Has Generation Y overdosed on self-esteem?" Mar. 2).
Although the study's findings are still being debated, the evidence shows the downside of having an "all about me" focus. Like an inflated piece of real estate or an overpriced handbag, an exaggerated view of oneself can be an unwise investment. It can lead to impulsive decisions that overlook the long-term welfare of ourselves and others.
The current research finds that what enables us to establish and sustain the kinds of healthy relationships that truly satisfy is a balance of individuality and compassion. We can have that balance right now, as we learn that there is no bond more important than our relationship with God.
In fact, to find out who we are, we have to start with our Creator. The Bible says, "Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth" (Isa. 40:26).
We reflect God's infinite goodness through the many spiritual qualities that we express, and this is what gives each of us our individual significance. We find our worth as we gain a deeper understanding of God's power.
It's God's power, not our own apparent cunning and drive, that gives our lives momentum and direction. As we cultivate the recognition of divine Spirit in our minutes and hours, and as we look for the many ways that He is active in our day, we begin to see that we are the beneficiaries of God's largess, rather than the personal originators of human fulfillment. This also takes the pressure off us to go, go, go until we are ready to collapse. The bottom line is that whatever we're trying to achieve, we don't make it happen; God does. Our efforts and determination, our work ethic – these things are relevant only as they acknowledge God as their foundation.
Mary Baker Eddy wrote: "Happiness consists in being and in doing good; only what God gives, and what we give ourselves and others through His tenure, confers happiness: conscious worth satisfies the hungry heart, and nothing else can" ("Message to The Mother Church for 1902," p. 17). It's in seeing our connection to God that we find our real self-worth. Thankfully, that inspired and accurate view of ourselves is not hard to find. It's always the law involved in everything we do.
Even if we think it's slipped through our grasp, a newer and more tangible recognition of God's immediacy is only a prayer away. Prayer doesn't have to be a drawn-out, complex process. There are times when a deep pondering of God's reality takes time and focus, but we don't have to wait until we have hours to spend in order to get started. The simple act of turning away from selfishness toward a higher sense of love is the beginning of many a life-changing prayer.
The Monitor article mentioned above notes the importance of empathy in countering the limits of narcissism. Empathy involves generosity and magnanimity. It's active and dynamic, not passive and dull. There are many ways each day to show kindness to others. Since empathy has its origin in God's love, it contains the potential to redeem and heal. As we remember that God is the basis of our identity, it becomes natural to be aware of the needs of others.
Putting God first and making caring for others a priority foster self-worth that endures even through tough times. This is knowing ourselves as God created us, and it provides the foundation for contentment and progress.