Utility, Value, and Suicidal Thoughts

rainbowbowlImagine an ordinary porcelain bowl sitting on a table in front of you. There’s nothing special about this bowl. It is plain without any distinguishing features. There are thousands, if not millions, of bowls like this in the world. They are useful, one can put rice in it, a salad, water, fruit or any other number of things. Despite it being useful, it would be odd if anyone missed it should it fall to the floor and smash to pieces.  The bowl has utility, but it doesn’t have value. One day a tattoo artist was feeling bored and decided to paint an original and intricate art work depicting Norse gods from an epic saga. Now something peculiar has happened: the bowl that was once so ordinary that its destruction would have been inconsequential has gained a new quality: value.  It’s still just as useful as a bowl, but now it requires more protection, care, and respect.  This bowl that was once so ordinary could now sit comfortably in a museum or an art gallery.  It has become important not just because of its usefulness for holding objects, but because it has acquired a value through the beautiful art work now inscribed on it.  People are similar, they can be useful, but they have a value that extends beyond their utility. Surprisingly enough, an incomplete understanding of these terms can actually lead to suicidal thoughts.

Utility refers to the effectiveness of an object to help reach an end. Value decides what that end is.  If I value shade, then the hammer, nails, and wood needed to make a roof protecting me from the sun are all useful.  However, the roof isn’t even valuable necessarily, it’s just useful at keeping the sun off me.  What is valuable is myself, all of my work was done for my own benefit.  My value as a person is the only reason why the roof exists; without me its existence would have no meaning.  This might seem like a trivial issue to be writing about, but consider that many people can’t distinguish between things that are useful and things that are valuable.  Often these words are used interchangeably, and the fact that we talk about money as having a “value” instead of having a utility only serves to increase this confusion.  The consequence is that people often lose sight of what really matters in life: other people, themselves and other beautiful things (like cats).  Without a firm sense of one’s value all sorts of mental health problems begin to crop up.  One’s perception of what is useful and what is valuable becomes distorted:  How many people measure the wealth of a man by how much money he has, and not his self-respect?  How many people measure the worth of a woman by how she looks, and not by her accomplishments? How many politicians boast of raising the GDP of a country, a measure of its statistical wealth, instead of measuring success based on the happiness of the people?  Are GDP statistics useful or valuable?

While reading “The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric“, by Sister Miriam Joseph, I came across a few sentences where she makes an extraordinary statement about how to prevent suicidal thoughts.  A textbook about English grammar is not the usual place to read about suicide, but she had an extraordinary perspective to share.  If a person did not believe the following three things about themselves they would be at risk of suicidal thoughts:

  1. I am valuable – “My life has value and meaning in itself, I’m an end worth striving for.”
  2. I am useful – “I am skilled and have much to offer other people in my community to help them survive.”
  3. I am interesting – “I am funny and entertaining to spend time with, people enjoy my presence in their lives.”

If a person has a secure belief in all three of these things, then they will never have suicidal thoughts.  However, the moment they lose confidence in one of these things, their energy levels will drop significantly.  Someone might say, “I’m funny and useful, but I don’t really matter – anyone could replace me,” or “I’m valuable and people like being around me, but I’m useless, I’ve got nothing to offer other people,” or “I’m valuable and useful, but I am boring and dull, no one wants to spend their time with me.”  One can hear the low energy levels in these words.

If a person lacks two of these things, then they are entering into the danger zone for suicidal thoughts.  So long as they at least cling firmly onto one of these three things they won’t actually commit suicide, but they will feel miserable and have doubts about why they still are alive.  However, remove all three and one reaches a perilous state where unless something changes the urge to commit suicide can become overwhelming.

While a blog entry about each of these three entries is warranted to cover them all in proper depth, let us focus just on utility and value.  With the example of the bowl at the beginning of this piece, nothing about the bowl is valuable: the porcelain, the paint, the brushes used to paint it etc… all these items are completely replaceable, even though they have utility.  It is common for men in particular to identify their self-worth with their occupation: I’m a plumber, plumbing is useful, therefore I am useful.  I’m a surgeon, surgery is useful, therefore I am useful.  However, because they see their lives as only having worth in what they can offer other people they fail to see that they are worthwhile.  These men will typically ignore their health, ignore their problems, ignore important issues that affect them and their families, all because they don’t see themselves as valuable.  One doesn’t build a sun shade for a bowl, nor does a person bother to protect themselves against sun damage if they don’t think they are valuable enough to make the effort for.  People often don’t make the effort to help themselves because they don’t see themselves as valuable enough to make that effort.

With the painting of the Nordic saga: it is useless, the painting itself cannot be used to do anything useful.  It can’t pick fruit, ward off insects, nor sweep the floor.  It is only valuable in its beauty.  This is the a problem I see more often with women. “I’m beautiful therefore I am valuable.”  Identifying their self-worth with their beauty and keen aesthetic sensibilities.  Women’s fashion sense is in terms of utility quite useless, but it is intrinsically valuable.  There is a tendency in women to see their value, and thus feel worthy of attention and gifts, yet still feel useless and having nothing to contribute to society.  Hence perhaps why so many women are obsessed with careers or are so fearful of losing their natural beauty?  More than one woman has said that her life would be over when she eventually loses her looks.  Perhaps if we started valuing people again then women would see more value in being mothers rather than as office slaves or objects of shallow aestheticism?

Why do people doubt their value or utility?  Sometimes people do lack any useful skills, this can result if they haven’t taken the time to learn something useful.  In some cultures it is considered unsightly for women or the children of rich people to learn any useful skills at all.  They do their women and children a great disservice by discouraging them from this.  Everyone can benefit from feeling useful.  The question of why some people fail to develop self value though is more complicated.  My belief is that thanks to several generations of standardised schooling we have a belief indoctrinated into our children they are either all the same (and thus easily replaceable) or that they ought to be all the same.  Uniforms are good at communicating this idea of conformity and replaceability.  These children grow up into parents who believe they should treat their children all the same regardless of their naturally different personalities.  These parents are intolerant of the child’s natural and unique value and unwittingly shame the children for being themselves.  However, every case is unique: some people have experienced traumas most people don’t and this trauma has shaken loose their belief in their own intrinsic value.  Whatever the case, therapy is valuable in helping people to reconnect with their sense of self value.

Exceptions exist for both men and women, some men feel valuable but useless, while some women feel useful but without any intrinsic value.  Ideally, everyone should seek out the beliefs they have which prevent them from seeing themselves as both useful and valuable.  If you want to increase your sense of self value: eat better food, read a good book (that one about the Trivium for example), wear nicer clothes, listen and talk more politely, and above all else: be more honest with yourself and others.  If you wish to increase your utility, learn a skill whether it be cooking, woodworking, or budgeting so long as it is something useful.  By cultivating your sense of value and utility you can ward off suicidal thoughts and get much more energy and passion for life.

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