The Modern Survival Guide #110
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Back at the start of this series, I made mention of the fact that a lot of modern survival has more to do with philosophy than it does with actual actions. It’s time we get into a major example of that — self-value.
This isn’t a trivial topic by any means; in fact it’s a huge influence on how we behave and act in the world, and the degree to which our actions promote our own survival and the survival of others. It influences our charitable contributions, our choice of work, our attitudes towards strangers, our attitudes towards our friends, and the everyday things like our evening plans and morning routine. It’s a big part of our personality and our worldview.
So, I think it’s important to have a rational value of self. That is to say, one that is balanced, takes into account our personal situations, and includes consideration of both ourselves and others, without forgetting our own self-worth. I have views about what all of those things mean for me, I recognize that they are particular to me and my circumstances, and I’m not going to push that worldview on you.
Really, I’m not.
But (you knew there was a “but” coming), I’m at least going to write down some things here which are my personal opinions, and which might inspire you to think about your own situation, your own balance, your consideration of others, and your own sense of self-value.¹
A Rationale Sense of Self is Balanced
Part of having a sense of self-value is determining when we should take care of ourselves, and when we should take care of everything else. Now, self-care itself is a very broad topic, but in general when I talk about self-care I mean those actions that we take to ensure a healthy body, mind, and spirit.
That probably just opens another can of worms, so let me be more specific: I think self-care means you keep yourself physically healthy, mentally stable, and reasonably content.
A rationally balanced sense of self means that you prioritize actions to keep yourself healthy. Almost without exception, you are more valuable alive than dead. I know that we are all raised on tales of heroic sacrifice, selfless devotion, and martyrdom. I am here to tell you that the reason those are apocryphal stories is because they are the exceptions to the rule, and people who want you to give and give and give until there is nothing left of you are the worst kind of assholes. The vast majority of the time, you should value yourself and your physical health highly enough to stay healthy and alive.²
A rationally balanced sense of self also means that you prioritize actions to keep yourself mentally stable. Stress is extremely bad for the human body over the long term, and nervous breakdowns do no one any favors. So it is to your benefit, and the benefit of those around you, to manage stress. That may mean taking actions to limit your working hours (if possible), take days off (if possible), or engage in recreational activities that you really like. If having a drink at night takes the edge off the day, have the drink. Just don’t have twelve.
Lastly, a rationally balanced sense of self means that you prioritize actions that keep your spirits up. Nobody likes to live in a funk, and depression is a serious threat to a great many people. Sometimes depression has to do with brain chemistry and there’s nothing you can change in your personal life to fix it; that’s a case for doctors and medication. But sometimes we get depressed because our lives are in a rough place, and that’s something we can mitigate on our own.
Notice that I used the word “mitigate,” not “fix.” Life is like a box of chocolates; sometimes you get nougat, and the best you can do is chew fast and then go back for a different piece. But seriously, I’ve had times in my life when I was genuinely unhappy, and while not all of that was necessarily my fault, there were things I could (and thankfully in most cases did) change to make the situation better.
Jobs, for example, can be shitty. It’s terribly easy to get a bad boss, or an awful coworker, or just work for a lousy company, and oftentimes the cure of complaining to HR is worse than the disease. Sometimes it’s better to try to find a new job. It’s a little more pain in the short term for a better situation in the long term.
Similarly, it’s always worthwhile to do things that make you happy (provided they are not, you know, actually causing damage — don’t do drugs, kids). Watch that TV show. Play that video game. Socialize. Do those sports things. Just don’t do these things exclusively.
Here’s the balance component: all of these things involve an opportunity cost. The activities we do to stay healthy, de-stress, or have fun take time and money. Sometimes that time and money need to go to other things. But they can never go exclusively to those other things, or else we don’t maintain a rational value of self. Finding that balance is a very personal, mindful, introspective process, and the world is chock full of people who messed it up. There are limits to escapism, and moderation in all things is usually the best path.
A Rational Value of Self is Situational
Ok, cool, we should value ourselves and be balanced in all things. Groovy.
Now for the next bit: sometimes you can’t. Simple as that. There are times in our lives when we do not have the luxury of self-care, or we are unable to do self-care to a “normal” level. And these times will occur primarily in situations where other aspects of our survival take precedence.
If I need to complete a report to my boss by midnight or I will lose my job, then from the perspective of a rational value of self I do not get to watch eight hours of TV that night. That’s because keeping the job is more important to my overall survival than binge-watching Tiger King, because keeping a stable cash flow is more important than gaping in horrified fascination at the antics of an idiot. Money enables us to indulge our passions, and that does not work in reverse unless we are very lucky. If Joe had remembered that, he might not be in so much trouble.
Sometimes we have to forego the fun (and the sleep) and get shit done. But, and this is a big caveat, this should be a temporary situation. If you find yourself in a place where you are working yourself to a frazzle every single day, something needs to change. That is not a rational value of self, because it is ultimately and universally self-destructive.
A Rational Value of Self Includes Others
Let me put this bluntly, because most of us need to hear it: you are not always the center of the universe. It is said that we are all the heroes of our own story; it is instructive to remember that sometimes we need to be supporting characters in another person’s novel. A rational value of self includes the idea that our personal needs are not the only, or even the most important, consideration at some times. Sometimes it is most rational for us to support others.
For many of us, the archetype of a supportive person came from our parents. Others of us had to learn for ourselves that the needs and priorities of other people sometimes must come ahead of our own. But all of us either have learned or need to learn this lesson.
Why, you ask? Oh, so many reasons. But fundamentally they come down to four big ones:
- We value others because we like being around them, we like helping them, we like seeing them succeed. Not everyone perhaps, but our chosen few, our inner circle, we like them. Eventually they will need something and it will both feel good and foster a sense of community to provide support.
- We value others because in so doing we create networks of gratitude and obligation, which we can call upon for favors or support at a later date.
- We value others because in so doing we support a group or cause which promotes a product, solution, or value we would like to see in the world. One man by himself ain’t worth a damn, but a dozen people, or a hundred, or a thousand can organize, form movements, promote causes, and generally raise hell.
- W value others because to value something beyond ourselves is perhaps the most rational action that any short-lived, fragile life form can possibly take, at least in the long term. We will die, or be so injured that we cannot do those things we would wish to do, and it’s simply a matter of when, not if, this will occur. To value others is a step towards the preparation of our legacy: we support that which will carry on when we cannot.
So yes, value yourself, and value yourself highly. There is no one else like you. But by the same token, there is no one else like your friends, your neighbors, your parents, your family members, your lovers, or any of the other countless thousands of people we will encounter in our lives. Value yourself. But remember that you are not the only self on this planet.
Do Not Forget to Care for Yourself
Ultimately, remember that a rational value of the self cannot forget the “self.” In many different circumstances in your life, you will be your only advocate; or at the very least, your only advocate on the scene. So yes, be balanced between self-care and other things. Yes, allow for situations where you cannot give yourself the level of indulgence you might otherwise. Yes, care for others. These are all good things.
But ultimately, care for yourself first most of the time.
Oooh, I’m going to get hate mail for this. I stand by it, though. You need to take care of yourself because you are the only person who will always be in a position to do so. You cannot count on the benevolence of others all the time. You cannot expect the world or the other people who live in it to provide you with the things you need. You should not trust God to take care of you; the good Lord looks after those who look after themselves. You need to take care of yourself, and once you have achieved whatever level of sustainability is right for you, then take care of others.³
Note that I don’t think this level of sustainability is particularly high. Once you have a roof over your head, some clothes, and food in your belly, I’m pretty sure that’s the minimum standard. But if you don’t do that first, you’ll die of exposure or starve before anything else happens.⁴
A rational value of self always includes the self. But now that I’ve overemphasized that, please folks, remember the balance. Remember the situations where you might need to sacrifice. Remember the times when your self does not come first. None of these points are less significant than the others; none should be ignored. So when it comes to your sense of self, please — be rational. It works for me, and it’s made my life better.
¹For reference, I am a fully employed, white, male, liberal, agnostic, married, cis-gendered person who grew up in a middle-class household and rarely felt any sting of poverty. All of those things potentially impact one’s sense of self, which is why I’m making such a big deal out of this. Ok, I’ll stop now, please continue reading.
²There are of course exceptions to the rule, and they universally follow this rubric: if your self-sacrifice is the only available option to save many others with whom you have a personal connection or obligation, that is a case where self-sacrifice might be an option. But the hero complex is rarely healthy, and one should avoid actively looking for such scenarios.
³I have personally seen people tithe themselves into poverty, and giving a stranger the shirt off your back is only acceptable if you have another shirt. Otherwise you then need a stranger to give you their shirt, or you will walk around naked.
⁴This has been called the “horrible calculus of necessity,” and in general you can and should expect people to do what they need to do to get their basic needs met. Those who fail to remember this rule end up on the ash heap of history.