External sources of validation abound, we all turn to them at one time or another, and every one of them is an illusion because out true value is both intrinsic and innate. We are the ultimate example of perfectly healthy people searching frantically for a doctor who will confirm our health.
Whether we search for validation in our careers, our financial achievement, a new home, finally achieving a goal, finishing a marathon, at long last breaking one hundred on the golf course, or finally weaning our son before he heads off for college, we all want to know we are OK. Ultimately, however, external sources of validation provide at best temporary relief from our distress because our value comes from within, not from without ourselves. What’s more, external sources of validation are based on criteria that change over time. The day I shoot the best round of golf in my life is quite literally also the day that begins the inevitable decline of my golf game. The peak of my earning power is likewise followed by the downhill slide of my earning power as I age. The day I wean my son so he can head off to college is the day I have to start dealing with the reality that not wearing a bra means my breasts drag behind me on the ground, following me wherever I go and pretending they don’t know me, like a Pakistani wife following her husband into a store.
In Christian circles, despite the clear teachings of Jesus that we are just fine just as we are – that’s what grace is – we don’t really believe that grace could possibly be true and so accumulate a list of good deeds as if they were some sort of resume so that we can argue our way into the gated community often called heaven. (Heaven is apparently in a bad neighborhood, and so there are gates.) These lists of deeds are nothing more than another external source of validation, perhaps of the most insidious kind because they are reactions to being reassured that we don’t need anything but authenticity to be acceptable! The truth is that self-loathing is pandemic in our culture and, ironically, self-loathing is both the result and the cause of searching for external sources of validation. We don’t want to spend time with ourselves – the necessary prerequisite for discovering our own inherent self-worth – because we are afraid of what we might find, afraid our elaborate collection of fictions might prove to be unnecessary, and what would we be left with for all of out fretting and self-promotion then? As author Annie Lamott has said, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.”
The practice for each one of us then becomes looking for what our external sources of validation are, and recognizing that while they aren’t inherently bad things they are also fleeting things. Can we hold them loosely and just “be” with ourselves? Can we appreciate that we are human beings, not human doings, and that the greatest gift we can give ourselves is to truly get to know ourselves – and know ourselves absolutely naked, at least metaphorically if we are in public at the time of knowing.
When we understand ourselves we come to a new and more accurate understanding of what we really need. We understand that all of our external monuments to our worth are just so much dust. Fortunately, we also learn that the invisible, inscrutable, intangible, authentic us – which we cannot hold in our hands or take pictures of – is the greatest gift to both ourselves and the world.