I’m struck by how many people feel badly about themselves: thinking they’re failures for not “doing enough,” faulting themselves for not having accomplished anything, walking around feeling guilty. Feeling self-critical is not necessarily unhealthy, but like any activity of mind, it can move into unhealthy territory.
I find it particularly ironic that many of my contemporaries feel this way, people who are nearing or are well into their seventies. Many members of my generation came of age during a period of social unrest and change; the war in Vietnam, the use of psychedelics and pot, the women’s and civil rights’ movements all supplied ample energy for social engagement. In one way or another, most of us had to take a stand for what we believed in, and if we had children, we passed some of those beliefs on to the next generation.
The twenty-first century looks to be no less challenging than the twentieth, which is to say the world remains deeply troubled. Those troubles are not exactly the same as those in the past, though issues of poverty, population growth, military conflict, feel eerily familiar. Added to that list are climate change, corporate globalization, and the dominance of digital technology, each of which pose daunting challenges. It doesn’t help that we know more about what’s happening half-way across the globe than ever before.
When confronted with problems we cannot solve as individuals, the sense of powerless or even helplessness can turn inward, and manifest as self-denigration. When that happens, we question our worth as people, lose confidence in ourselves and others and sink into bouts of anxiety and depression. The anger we might feel becomes self-directed.
In a society such as ours which elevates “rugged individualism” and self-sufficiency to its highest ideals, feelings of worthlessness come more easily. When the Tibetan Buddhist Lama, the venerable Chogyam Trungpa came to America after escaping from the Chinese invaders of Tibet, he was struck by the persistently high level of self-loathing he found among his western students; this, he felt, would be the greatest impediment in their spiritual lives. His pith teaching became focused on helping his students and society gain confidence in their own worthiness as human beings.
For those of us now in our seventies, what used to be considered “old,” I suggest giving ourselves a break from the pressure for “performance” makes sense. It’s not that there’s nothing that can be done, or shouldn’t be done; work aplenty to help improve the lot of others is all around us. But an honest appraisal of what we actually can do is fair and appropriate. Energy levels vary, as do cognitive and physical skills. In many cases, children have been raised and grandchildren cared for. Working careers are over, gratefully, for many. These remaining years deserve positive attention; for many of us the end of life will be challenge enough. There’s no need to pile on self-doubt and recrimination at precisely the point in life when it’s most difficult to change.
So to my friends and associates who deem themselves unworthy, who wake up feeling lousy about themselves and their lives, I say give yourself a break. You’ve put in your time, made your efforts, “done your thing.” Do what you can to pass on the values you admire, treat others kindly, and let yourself relax.