I recently acquired a new email friend — Debbie Avila, a Meridian reader who has muscular dystrophy, is on a respirator, and is largely bedfast. Her beautiful spirit spills out into every word she types. (And she is limited to partial use of one hand!)
I’m amazed at her wisdom and her beautiful attitude. She has given me impetus to revisit the biggest myth I’ve struggled with in years gone by: that worth is determined by ability to perform.
Why Has the Myth Influenced Me for So Long?
This “performance equals worth” myth has been huge in my life, and I am totally ready to put it to rest. It has been so deeply rooted that it has felt like part of my very identity. Both my mom and dad were “get up early, work every minute, never sit down unless you have work in your lap”-type people. I can never ever remember my mom either playing or resting. She didn’t even take naps until she was in her late eighties.
Then at church from the time I have any remembrance we sang songs like, “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel,” and “Have I Done Any Good in the World Today,” which, until the new hymnbook came out with the revision, contained the words, “Only he who does something is worthy to live; the world has no use for a drone.”
What my young mind got from that was not the message of industry and service the author intended, but that I was worthless if I wasn’t getting something done. My sister and I ruminated the other day that all our lives we have said things like, “I didn’t feel good enough to do a thing today. I was totally worthless.”
When I was a young mother, President Kimball’s influence was prominent in my life. Debbie pointed him out as a good example of being of worth even when he couldn’t do anything because of his many health problems. But I never thought of that. He was my exemplar for doing more, more, more. “Lengthen Your Stride”! “Do It!” were his mottos.
And the General Authorities in general always seemed to be put forth as shining examples of people who keep going, never stop, barely take time to eat or drink, stand in line and shake hundreds of hands even when they are exhausted.
I wanted to be like that! But I wasn’t. No matter how hard I worked at my health I was a physical wimp with chronic health issues and very little stamina. I found that whole scenario a terrible blow to my feelings of self-worth.
I Knew the Answers in My Head
I’ve been preaching against the falsehood of the “Performance Equals Worth” myth for decades. In the 80s I gave talks and wrote articles refuting it; in the 90s I tried to help my elderly mom work through her feelings about this issue. (She lived her last four years in my home). She had always been a do-er and was distressed as her ability to “do” steadily decreased.
To comfort her, I told her the story of my 1966 experience with Sister McKay, wife of President David O. McKay. Fresh home from a mission, I had the opportunity to be on a BYU committee to honor Sister McKay. She came, although she was elderly and fragile, wheelchair-bound, and barely able to speak. She seemed so pleased with the program about her life, and graciously accepted the quilt we had made for her.
Although her capacities were so greatly diminished, one of the sweetest experiences of my life was to take her hand and look into her eyes. It was her presence that was so special — not what she said or did, but who she was. I told my mom, “It is a blessing to have your presence in this house. We love having you here. You don’t have to do anything to be a blessing to us.” And it was true.
But my heart lagged far behind when it came to applying that same reasoning to my own value. Did I believe that my presence alone was a blessing to anyone? No, I still felt that my value was in what I could do. I’ve tried for decades to overcome this myth because I know so surely in my mind that it is false. But emotionally, somehow I’ve stayed stuck in it. I seldom let my body really rest, even when I’m lying down and should be sleeping. I’ve always been wired, just waiting for a little more energy so I could jump up and do more!
Although I was still not truly feeling my own innate worth, I have marveled at the preciousness of each new grandchild, and certainly not required any “do-ing” from them to earn their place in my heart. It seems so clear when we look at infants, young children and the elderly and infirm that their value is who they are, not what they contribute to the work of the world. So why was that so hard to apply to myself?
I have really struggled with this issue, and recognized that I was nursing a big fear inside that was part of it — that if I continue to lose physical stamina and can’t “hold my own” or do my part, that I will not be valued at all! That if I had to be cared for I would be nothing but burden. I’ve had a huge fear of asking others for help for this same reason.
Why is it so hard to believe I’m valued enough to motivate someone else to put aside their own priorities to help me? But I’ve always thought, “Everyone is so busy; how could they have time for me?” An emotional remnant of the myth wouldn’t let go of my heart. I was still feeling that my value depended on what I could do for others, what I could contribute, what I could create — not who I am.
A New Friend Helps Me to a New Level of Understanding
Enter on the scene Debbie Avila, who has already crossed that bridge of losing her ability to “hold her own” in the daily workplace. She can’t clean the house or fix meals for herself (or needy neighbors). She can’t earn a living, do errands or shopping (or care for herself, much less anyone else). She needs nursing help 24/7.
But has she given up on life or concluded that she is of no value? No! She can’t turn a page of a book, but she can read on the computer and type with one hand. And so she fills her mind with uplifting material and passes it on to others. She encourages and offers strength and love to a whole group of friends via email — now including me. She has made a great difference in my life in the past few weeks. She has time to listen!
She confided in me that about 15 years ago she was suicidal and had to work through this whole issue on a deep level.
(She is now 50.) But the Lord helped her to recognize that her life still had meaning, and that who she is could be a great gift to others.
Darla, I think we should learn from the blossoms. [the lilies of the field, as it says in the scriptures.] Do they work for life or create their own beauty? They give of their beauty, delight, grace by just being and fulfilling the measure of their creation. So should we! We all need to learn more about becoming… I can’t imagine the Lord saying to me, “How many scriptures did you memorize? Deborah, did you send a birthday card and Get Well card to every one of your friends?” I can hear Him say, “Deborah, did you forgive and call on my name?”
When we do, do, do without pure motives, Satan is right there distorting our truth, whispering, “See, you can do it on your own, you are capable enough to get to what you want to be. You don’t need to pray or be humble; you’re intelligent enough. You’re not a child!” I personally believe that the minute Satan builds up our pride, we are doomed — even if we are doing everything right and beneficial as the Church teaches.
Zion is built on being of one heart, pure — not on doing everything right. There’d be a lot of handicapped and ignorant souls up the creek if it were the other way around! Doing is merely a tool, a method to enlarge and develop what we already are in embryo and help us develop the heart and mind. That is its purpose.
My sister Tanya, who also has muscular dystrophy, dictates her letters and journal. That doesn’t mean she has less worth because she can’t type them herself; she’s just using a different method. But she’s still becoming and giving of her best! And, she’s already produced the sweetest fruit!
Debbie sent me a picture of herself, and I’ve thought about her so much. I’ve whined about my physical limitations for years, and here was an example of someone with drastic limitations who wasn’t whining! Look at her eyes! Her great worth and her beautiful spirit shine out of them.
As I’ve pondered this whole myth issue again, thinking of Debbie, the Lord has blessed me with new understanding that our work doesn’t give us meaning. It is the other way around; we give our work meaning: who we are is suffused into every bit of what we do, every word we speak or write. The words Debbie has typed to me would have no meaning apart from who she is! If my writing has meaning, it’s because of who I am.
I think one of the reasons the Lord brought Debbie into my life right now was to help me reprogram. In the past few weeks, as Debbie shared more and more of herself with me, something started to change. Something important.
Recently I emailed her and said:
The most wonderful thing happened to me this morning. I started realizing that I was getting it! That I was feeling the reality of my worth apart from what I do. That all those things I’ve written and talked about for decades were finally feeling true to my heart — that each person is precious because he is a beloved son or daughter of God, period. That what I do doesn’t add one iota to my intrinsic value — that my worth is just there because of Who created me and who I am. That any service I render is meaningful because of who I am, not the other way around.
The words you email to me are full of the very fabric of who you are as a person — and that is what gives them warmth and meaning. Everything you say or write with love carries some of who you are to the listener or reader and that is what makes the words important. Not the act of saying or typing the words, but the spirit behind them.
This principle applies to everything we do! When someone brings you food, it would be meaningless without the love with which it was prepared and the kindness and concern that motivates the action. If a robot fixed and brought the food, the act would be quite meaningless.
Debbie, you have been an important part of the truth of all this finally, finally, getting down to an emotional level with me. I’ve known it intellectually for decades, but somehow I couldn’t feel it where it counts.
Trying to Hang On to This Truth
Is it easy to maintain this new level of understanding? No! I have to watch my thoughts to reinforce the new feelings and keep from sliding down the slippery slopes back into my deeply engrained patterns. But I’m finding wonderful reinforcements. Last week I wrote to Debbie:
I drove the Alpine Loop today. That hour of driving in magnificent, peaceful autumn-splashed scenery fed my soul. I kept thinking I wished I could share the beauty of it with you. I read somewhere that when you are in harmony with the Savior, you feel one with all of His creations — and I was feeling that.
The drive helped me in my quest to keep feeling the joy of recognizing my inner worth apart from what I do. I keep going back to babies, the elderly, the disabled, and the absolute worth of each. My friend down the street has a child, now almost 20, born so early he was given no hope. But somehow he lived — blind, can’t walk or talk or eat. She has fed him through a tube in his stomach for all of these twenty years! He contributes in no way to the “work” of the world. But is he precious? Do they love him? Of course! And they are comforted by the assurance of his celestial crown. He cannot sin!
Finding an Article That Deepens the Meaning
I don’t think it was just chance, that in this same time period my soon-to-be daughter-in-law Lindsy emailed me a chapter from the book Out of Solitude by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Several ideas expressed in those five short pages strengthened my understanding and gave a profound reinforcement to this whole concept that our presence, our intentions, who we are is more important than just what we can do.
The chapter is called simply, “Care.” Nouwen indicates that in our emphasis on busy doing we can distance ourselves from each other, forgetting that true caring creates closeness.
I found his conclusion revealing — that people will resist help that comes without true caring. That caring is the “precondition” of all cure. Cure without care feels offensive instead of liberating, that it can make the givers into rulers, manipulators, controllers instead of friends.
He said people often conclude that it is better to suffer than accept a gift from a non-caring hand.
What has this got to do with the subject of the myth? Just this: even donations and gifts of money or help of any kind come trailing the essence of who we are.
Our intentions, our love or lack of it, our honest caring or lack of it are evident in everything that proceeds out of us. Our Church humanitarian donations are usually received with gratitude because they are offered with true love and caring — not with any hidden agenda or desire to control or manipulate.
The Gift of Presence
Who we are is most powerfully felt in our presence. How many tender times has someone exclaimed, “You came!” And those two words said it all. However, we can be “present” in body but not “present” in caring ways that really matter. Nouwen also said that caring is being willing to enter into someone else’s pain without feeling we have to do something about it.
Of course, what we do is important. The Lord said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” But there is such a vital link between who we are and how we do the keeping of the commandments. The “who we are” part is where we are coming from. If we come from a position of charity, true caring, and a heart full of Christ-like love, our very presence, and even the tiniest thing we do or say will bless others. If we come, instead, from a place of neediness or pride, needing to prove our worth by what we do, the influence of our presence and gifts will be very different indeed.
Nouwen expresses the kind of caring “presence” that matters: “To care, first of all means to be present to each other. From experience you know that those who care for you become present to you. When they listen, they listen to you. When they speak, they speak to you. And when they ask questions, you know it is for your sake and not their own. Their presence is a healing presence because they accept you on your terms.” Yes! That is what I’ve been experiencing with Debbie. Even though her “presence” has been through email, I feel all those things from her. She gives the sweet gift of caring, of time, of loving concern.
Giving Who We Are
Perhaps one more quote from Nouwen will sum it up: “When we honestly ask which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solution, or cures [doing?], have chosen to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and caring hand.”
What he is really saying is that the most important thing we give others is not what we do but who we are — and if who we are is truly caring, that gift is priceless. He is telling us that our performance doesn’t create our worth because it is already there.
Who we are as loving sons and daughters of God creates worth in our performance. What we do mirrors and is an extension of who we are. All we have to give in the end is caring for the preciousness of each soul — not because of their performance, but because of who they are as sons and daughters of God. Performance does not equal worth. But the degree to which we realize our innate worth and the worth of every other person greatly influences our ability to love.
Author Note: Visit my web site: darlaisackson.com
For updated information on my new book After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On. Click on “ordering information” for details on two specials in regard to the book.