The Soul: A Source of Inherent Self Worth
Essays 2016 / Student Winners
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the USA, closely followed by depression. A staggering 40 million adults are effected by anxiety disorders – 18% of the population, and an equally unsettling 14.8 million adults are effected by depression – 6.7% of the population. Tens of billions of dollars are spent each year in connection with these disorders; money being spent on therapy, medication, loss of work and related illnesses.
One of the most prevalent – and scientifically beneficial – forms of therapy is known as CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This essay will explore one of the underlying themes of CBT, and will provide profound insight and depth into this method by employing the Chassidic concept of a Neshamah – a Jewish soul, and by understanding the true nature of its relationship with Hashem.
CBT is founded upon the principle that a person’s feelings are direct responses to their thoughts. Destructive thoughts result in destructive emotions, and people with ongoing patterns of negative thinking will inevitably develop a negative self-image, resulting in feelings of anxiety and depression. Treatment, therefore, centers primarily on the thought patterns themselves, in replacing unhealthy and irrational thoughts for more accurate and useful ones. Changing one’s thought patterns will undoubtedly change the way that they feel, without having to employ intrusive psychoanalysis or address the feelings directly.
There are very specific unhealthy patterns of thinking – “cognitive distortions” – that are commonly found in sufferers of anxiety or depression. All or nothing thinking; inability to significantly value the positive; naturally jumping to negative conclusions; and personally identifying with mistakes, are just some of the more common cognitive distortions. A patient undergoing CBT will work to recognize these distorted thoughts as they emerge in their minds, identify the specific distortion that is associated with the thought, and replace the distorted thought for a healthier and more productive one.
After being declined a job opportunity, one’s natural thought process may be: “I’m so useless, I can’t seem to do anything right. I’ll probably never get the job I’m looking for, and I will remain miserable”.
This thought process contains multiple distortions, including all or nothing thinking (if I did not receive this job it must mean that I am entirely useless), overgeneralizing and future telling (just as I didn’t receive this job I will never receive any other jobs) and labelling (my failing in this attempt makes me a failure).
This thought process would be more correctly replaced with, “Although it is upsetting that I did not receive this job, I still regard myself as a capable person. I will continue to look for a job in my field of expertise, and I hope to eventually find something that I enjoy”.
Beyond this initial level of corrective thinking, CBT will then advance to explore the root of these distorted thoughts: why does one naturally react in such an unhealthy way, and what underlying beliefs are fueling this damaging way of thinking. The most common underlying belief in sufferers of anxiety is an inherent lack of self-worth; the perspective that one’s right to exist is dependent upon their accomplishments, contributions and social standings.
The following is the breakdown of a typical conversation that an anxiety sufferer might have with their therapist:
Patient: I did not receive this job opportunity, so I must be a failure. I will never get a job, and I will remain miserable forever.
Therapist: Imagine you actually never got a job. Why would that be so bad?
Patient: If I never get a job I won’t be successful and I will have nothing to show for myself.
Therapist: Imagine you are not successful and have nothing to show for yourself. Why would that be so bad?
Patient: That would mean that I have not contributed anything to society.
Therapist: Imagine you contribute nothing to society. Why would that be so bad?
Patient: That would mean that my existence is worthless, and I might as well not be living.
As we have demonstrated, this person’s pattern of negative thinking stems directly from their distorted picture of self-worth. Their right to exist is only understood through the lens of their achievements; if they don’t find themselves productive they don’t feel their existence to be worthy. Anxious thoughts are the natural result of such a damaged self-image, as one is in constant need of justifying themselves and their right to exist.
The assured way of combating this negative self-belief is by developing a strong sense of inherent self-worth, one that is not contingent upon one’s achievements or successes. “I am worthy by virtue of the fact that I exist, not as a result of anything that I achieve”.
The difficulty with developing such a mindset is the counterexample that our society relentlessly promotes. The value that western culture attributes to achievement and progress is so ingrained in our psyche that an exceedingly compelling argument is necessary if this belief is to be invalidated. Perhaps our anxiety producing beliefs are the truth, and our value is indeed commensurate with our achievements?
There are multiple methods employed in formulating a notion of inherent self-worth. I will present 3 schools of thought – those of psychology, (general) religion and Chassidus – and show how the Chassidic concept of a Neshamah provides for the deepest and most astute source of inherent self worth.
If we are to take a strictly evolutionary outlook on the world, there is indeed no reason to attribute inherent self-worth to any being. If anything, the opposite is the case. Our continued survival on this planet is a result of our biological prowess, thus reinforcing the belief that our right to exist is truly a result of our strength and resilience.
One approach that psychology advances is to do away with the very notion of self-worth altogether:
The entire concept of self-worth is a manmade construct, and is not empirically demonstrable. We have taught ourselves to believe that we must have self-worth, and we have further conceived that manmade self-worth to be a product of our achievements. Discard the fantasy of self-worth and we will, consequently, discard all the negativity that it’s deficiency produces.
The downside of this approach is clear:
While it may help to alleviate some of the discomfort associated with low self-esteem, it has not produced any replacement system by which one should gain their confidence. Rather than addressing the issue at hand it sidesteps the issue altogether, and one is still left searching for a source of confidence.
Belief in G-d and creationism brings with it a new depth to the self-worth discussion.
Assuming that G-d does not commit un-purposeful acts, my very existence proves my sense of worth. G-d – in an act of outright volition – brought me into being, thereby imparting a sense of value to my existence. Regardless of whether I am aware of the purpose for which I was created or not, the very knowledge that there is purpose in my existence grants me a sense of self- worth and inner significance. Many people turn to religion and belief in G-d in their quest for meaning and value, and find solace and confidence in the knowledge that G-d takes interest in their existence.
While this approach has value – and has benefited many people in their search for meaning and purpose – it does have several shortcomings.
Firstly, although it ascribes a definite sense of value to every created being, it does not define the extent of that value. An individual being has no way of determining just how valuable he is, being that he has no insight into the exact purpose for which he was created.
A mosquito and a human being are both created beings, and, as such, both exist for a purpose. There is no way of determining, however, the exact hierarchy of values, and which created beings are of which degree of import. It is very possible that a human being’s existence is of equal importance to G-d as that of the mosquito; a belief that will doubtfully do much to bolster one’s self-esteem.
This argument is not irrefutable, however, especially when taking into account the insight that we do have into the mind of the Creator, namely, the Torah that He gave us.
G-d has indicated His plan for creation in the Torah, and we can glean insight into His hierarchy of values from the descriptions found there. As opposed to all other creations, specifically man was “created in the image of G-d”; was called upon to fulfill a certain mission; and experienced direct communication with G-d Himself, indicating his elevated status in the eyes of G-d. It is clear, then, that man is of greater value than a mosquito, and, in truth, of all of creation.
There is, however, a second shortcoming to this entire approach, which is unaided by any insight gained from the Torah’s account: the self-worth that such an outlook fosters is of a limited and contingent nature, not an undefinable and inherent nature.
While belief in G-d and creation grants a person a sense of value and purpose, it simultaneously limits that sense of value as well. Man’s self-worth is now commensurate with the import ascribed to his mission, which is, by nature, of limited value, consequently limiting the value that his being created ascribes him.
Furthermore, one’s self-worth is now contingent upon their fulfillment of their purpose. Should a person choose to abrogate their responsibilities and not live up to their true potential, their lives cannot still be said to be of value, and they indeed have no reason to feel worthy.
The concept of a Neshamah – as it is explained in the teachings of Chassidus – gives room for a concept of self-worth that is entirely stripped of achievements or purpose. An understanding into the true nature of the Neshamah grants a person a right to exist for the very sake of existence, without the need for any justification at all.
In describing the nature of the Neshamah, and its contrast to all other humanistic features that a person is comprised of, the Alter Rebbe writes (Tanya chap. 2):
“The second soul in a Jew is literally a part of the One Above”.
While this definition is oft-repeated and may sound simplistic to the unguided reader, its implications are radical and far reaching.
In contrast to every other existence in this world, which are all creations of G-d, the soul of man is a part of G-d Himself. It is not a distinct entity from G-d that was brought into being by an act of creation; rather it’s existence is attributed to the very existence of G-d Himself.
This distinction between the Neshamah and all beings – created existence vs. inherent existence – is extended by the Rebbe to its logical conclusion.
In Likkutei Sichos vol. 24 pg. 162 the Rebbe writes (free translation):
“The very existence of a Jew is of greater significance than the revelation of G-d’s dominion that is brought about through his fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvos; the purpose of their existence is their very existence itself. A Jew is one – so to speak – with the very essence of G-d, and G-d delights in the very existence of a Jew (just as a king delights in his stored away treasures [i.e. even thought they are of no functional use to him], and [in regards to Hashem this is] even more so).
It follows, that the difference between [the soul of] a Jew and all other beings is in their very creation: The existence of every other being is not for its own sake, rather, (for a secondary function -) to fulfill the purpose which was allocated to it. Whereas [the soul of] a Jew, the purpose of it’s creation is in its very existence (even before it fulfills its purpose in this world).”
In other words:
Any existence that was brought into being has, perforce, a justification as to why it was brought into being. From the loftiest of Heavenly emanations to to the lowliest of earthly beings, a previously non-existent being requires an excuse for its current state of existing. This reason then, in turn, limits the value of that particular being; it is only significant insofar as it fulfills that pre-determined purpose.
The only being that needs no justification for its existence is one that never needed to be brought into being – G-d, who exists on account of His own existence, i.e. He is entirely self- sufficient. There can be no “purpose” ascribed to the existence of G-d, for He exists prior to any form of purpose, and He is the source of all purpose. It follows, then, that only G-d possesses the true concept of inherent self-worth – a sense of existence that is stripped of any need for justification or validation.
This conception of the Neshamah – as being a part of G-d Himself – imparts this same sense of inherent self-worth to man as well.
Man is not a creation of G-d, of import limited to the function for which he was created; man is a part of G-d Himself and, as such, is of absolute import, the likes of which cannot be quantified. Just as G-d Himself does not exist for any purpose extrinsic of Himself, so too the soul, being a part of G-d, does not exist for any purpose outside of itself.
Man can now truly say, “I am worthy by virtue of the fact that I exist, not as a result of anything that I achieve”.
Meditation upon this concept of the Neshamah can significantly raise a person’s self-esteem and can help them gain a new outlook on life. Not only are achievements not necessary in order for one’s existence to be deemed as worthy, on the contrary, the inherent self-worth that a person possesses far exceeds any sense of confidence that achievements can bring.
The more this outlook becomes ingrained in our way of thinking, the less fuel we give to negative patterns of thinking and feelings of anxiety. One can gradually learn to have a sense of confidence in their very existence, and can live a life of happiness and tranquility.