The Recovering Achiever: On defining the worth of a person

Lena Orlova // Columnist 

My friend is a woman of fierce but petite stature, with a soul so big it escapes her body through her dark eyes. She hands me a book before I head to my car. The weekend is over, I’m done with being around people, and looking forward to the comfort of my solitude. The title Woman of Worth spans the front cover. She co-authored the book with a team of empowered, self-actualized women that inspire me. I don’t know yet why she decided to gift me this. On the page introducing her chapter, I see her scrawl: “Lena, what a force you are! I am so excited for the future of this world… because you are in it!” I’m not sure what she means by that, either. 

The act of sitting down to write is like undressing myself in front of strangers. I do it through clenched fists, through resistance, driven only by momentum of the irresistible urge to create. I am like an ostrich with my head in the sand, but with arms and a MacBook. I glance from the screen to the book and consider the title. I churn and chew over the words slowly. Woman. Of. Worth. How does one know their own worth? Do you measure it with a ruler? Do you weigh it on a bathroom scale?  

My first lesson in worth transpired at the kitchen table of my childhood home. My grandfather: stern, stoic, beard, bread-and-butter, and tobacco scent. A serious Eastern-European man weathered by the injustice and moral poverty of the Iron Curtain era. He was the sun of my life, like a second Dad. I’m so small my legs don’t stretch to touch the floor. He sits beside me and notices my eyes wander off a notebook to the birds meandering in the warm sun outside the window. To teach me focus, he cuts in: “Lena! When you do something, you do it 100 percent or don’t do it at all.” I come back to my work and grind away. 

My little girl brain made his words mean a whole lot more about life and the world. Regularly repeated in my formative years, they cemented the belief that unless I give 100 per cent, what I do is worth nothing. And if what I do is worth nothing, then who I am is worth about as much. This insidious learning was immediately supported by the fact that my family brims over with doctors, teachers, academics, adventurers, athletes and creative achievers. If there is anything we are good at, it’s at doing

This idea ran my life before I knew it existed. It took center stage: direction, spotlight and all. As I grew up, I decided I would do a lot of things in order to make up for my perceived lack of worth. When I was in high school, I did well. I got As. I made myself a Good Student. The first time I went to university, I continued the grade streak, until I was inspired (or bored by institutional learning) to quit. I came back to Vancouver to work kitchen jobs, scrubbing floors for a year to pay for the three-months I would spend backpacking in Europe. I saw the world in order to reinvent myself and become an Interesting Person. Then I returned home again to take on office work in order to make myself a Responsible Person. My family would have been proud. I did things! 

While these experiences were amazing, my life felt like shadow play. Something was always missing. On a dreary late-February afternoon, I lay on my living room floor asking the blank ceiling of my apartment: who am I if I am not doing anything? Recalling this memory leaves me clammy and cold. I tried, and worked and received no self-fulfillment. I got nothing from commitments to school, self-improvement, work, hobbies, health or travel. The more I did, the more I got lost. 

The ceiling never answered my question. However, there are hundreds of people I didn’t ask (and whom I’ve never met) willing to offer their unsolicited response through social media. Facebook never fails to deliver the daily dose of guru-speak. 10 Steps to Have the Perfect RelationshipWhat Confident People DoFive Reasons to Do YogaWhy You Should MeditateDo These Four Things and You Will Be Happy.  

As I sit and write this column, I reflect on my so-far short life on this planet. It seems like bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle not yet formed; a series of disjointed beginnings and endings. When I no longer use what I do to measure my worth, the price of that disillusionment is confusion and ambiguity.  

I ask my friend how she got her start in writing. She tells me she shared on a private forum for the sake of connecting with her peer group. They remarked that she was a talented writer. This feedback opened to her the possibility of writing published work. She took a chance on herself, applying to contribute a chapter to Christine Awram’s Woman of Worth series. She got published. Today her book lays on my desk as I write. For me, the difference in choosing to write is that I consider writing an extension of myself, not an attempt to prove something about me. It feels solid, true and meaningful. It feels true to who I am.  

Sometimes we decide what we do, sometimes we don’t choose it for ourselves, and sometimes – we do nothing. But always, always, we are more than the sum of our actions. We are all a Person of Worth in the grand scheme of our lives. 

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