Yesterday and today I took final inventory of my father’s life’s possessions, and for that matter, his entire life. As I explained in my last post, he never threw anything away, apparently because those things were valuable to him. Perhaps his “toy” collection boosted his self esteem, like a growing bank account makes us feel more successful. Dad couldn’t stop buying himself things; more and more things, repeats of things, things he never opened or needed. I think his constant consuming was really about self-reward. His own father never praised Dad for anything. Dad’s dad was mean and uncaring, a destroyer of faith.
Anyway, feeling forlorn, a few hours ago I dropped off eight more daddy boxes at Goodwill. As I carried the cartons from the back of Mom’s car to the store’s big rolling bin, I wondered how much value all those things would have for someone else. Would anyone buy an eighty’s Panasonic portable radio, or a plug-in ¼” recording tape de-magnetizer/eraser, or twenty-three AC converters that once powered twenty-three other things in seven other boxes? My guess is, most of everything I just gave away will end up in a landfill.
Ultimately, Dad’s prize possessions had no value. How he would feel about that if he were still alive?
I know how I would feel, because today I also discovered my own past from college days. They were my drawings of fantasy machines. I remember I got an “A” on that art class assignment. One design I even gave to my professor because he wanted it as a model for a sculpture he had in mind. I kept the other drawings because back then they were important to me and I assumed they always would be. They’re not anymore. Still, I didn’t trash them. I left them where I found them – in the back of the garage between the pages of my old sketchbook.
I didn’t want them but I didn’t want to chuck them either. Those drawings were an imprint of young optimist’s hopes and wishes and I felt a wash of sentimentality as I stared at them. The art student of 1967 is not the older more cynical soul I am today. He feels like a separate spirit and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by devaluing his creations with a casual toss into the recycle can.
What about Dad’s spirit? Was I devaluing my father by abandoning his possessions at a thrift store? He would have been crushed, accusing me of betrayal, scolding me for breaking an unspoken promise. I had failed to respect him forever. And as I write these words, I’m thinking I’m fussing way too much over this, but I’m gloomy just the same.
Mom is too. She admitted she couldn’t finish the job. She moved his stuff from upstairs to downstairs but she stopped short of taking it out of the house. So I had to do it, and will continue to deconstruct Dad’s past a little more and a little more with each future visit. There’s still Dad’s workshop to breakdown, the first thing he put together when he and Mom moved into this house fifty-two years ago. A lot of the stuff in there he inherited from his father and I’ll end up giving that away too. I have no place to keep antique tools I’ll never use.
It’s sad. Seventy years ago those hand-crafted, made-in-America, wood and metal implements had great value. Now they’re just remembrances and curiosity pieces. I’m hoping they’ll go to where they’re appreciated again and into the hands of someone who honors the pride that went into making those things. I hope a younger man rekindles their importance, because in Dad’s case, the gadgets he gave himself did not serve their purpose. They didn’t make him happy and in his last years, weeks and days, they didn’t give him a sense value. In his words, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
So what is VALUE, really? What stays valuable?
I think value is virtual. It doesn’t exist outside the human mind. When you think about it, something is valuable only when someone believes it is, and only if that someone wants it enough to trade services, goods or money to get it. We also know that value changes through time and from culture to culture. What has value to me may not have value to you. Value never stays the same. If it did, we would not be able to build wealth, a tangible way to create value. In some circles, it’s the only way to create value, or at least the only respected way.
But of course ownership is not the only way we build our value. You may be guessing where I’m going with this post. It’s an answer to a question.
How do we determine the intrinsic value of a human life?
This is heavy exploration so let’s lighten it up. To determine your own value on the Podolsky Scale of Good-Better-Best, start by asking yourself these few simple questions.
- If you’re not rich or famous, if you’re not a Job Creator, if you haven’t invented a cure for cancer or a time machine, if you’re just a regular YOU, what’s your Value Rating in the minds of others?
- Did you have pre-packaged VALUE out-of-the-box or was assembly required?
- Do you have value if no one says you do?
- If you’re gay, an albino, undocumented, homely, pudgy, anorexic, over seven feet tall or under five feet tall, do you deserve to have value?
- How much value do you need to feel good about yourself, if any?
- Is it okay to consider yourself valuable if no one else does?
- Is it okay to go through life without value? Or do you deserve to die?
- Is it okay to buy value, as in, supporting people so they need you?
- Is Bought Value just as good as value earned with good deeds?
- Is Mother Theresa Service Value as good as Donald Trump Moneyed Value? Which is better?
- Is Negative Value okay, like a serial killer with a heart of gold?
- If you believe in God, do you believe He/She/It values some people more than others? If so, who are they? Is it you?
- Do atheists have value? How about the-jury’s-still-out agnostics?
- Does one religion have more value that another, and who decides which one is best?
- Will you still have value if no one remembers you after you die?
- Is After-Death Value better than Only-While-Alive Value?
- If you’ve never asked these questions before, are you less valuable than someone who has?
- Will you have more value to others if you can answer 12 out of 17? How about 3 out of 17?
Seriously folks, in many ways we think about these questions all the time. They motivate us to do what we do and our life’s purpose is wrapped around their answers. And since it’s human nature to seek value and significance, we’re all vulnerable to sneaky manipulation that feeds our ego. Behavior and self-esteem is shaped by praise and rebuke from parents, teachers, bosses, clergy, your best friend, unknown fans, anyone who’s opinion of us we value. We all want our value validated. We have to be careful about that and make sure the flattery and criticism is true.
My father’s sense of value was totally dependent on the endorsements of others so he never stopped needing more proof of respect, admiration and love. I’m more self-assured but sure, I want to matter to others as well. But I also want people to value me for what I can give them and how I can help them. More importantly, I want other people to matter to me. I want to be more tolerant and patient and forgiving and accepting. I think people who do that have the greatest value of all. I’d like to be able to achieve that maturity sooner than later. Finally, I’d like to accept my father for who was, AS he was, before I take down his workshop hide-away.
Dad, I hope you’re still building things you love. I hope you’re not scared anymore of being disliked. I hope you’re thriving and peaceful and finally happy. And I hope you can let me know if you are.