Thoughts for Thursday: The Value of a Life

Be it known throughout the Realm of Brandonia…

Thursdays henceforth shall be for random higher-level thinking.

“So What Do You Do?”

Chances are, you’re reading this either on your computer, tablet, or phone while your “on a break” at work. If I’m wrong, then… shut up and just imagine you’re at your job. Maybe you work in an office, sitting behind a screen most of the day, answering calls, replying to e-mails, working on reports, and the like. Or maybe you work with your hands, building or fixing things, making things grow. You probably chat with your co-workers in the break room or on the job site about silly nonsense, like who’s going to die next on “The Walking Dead,” or why the goddamn Patriots keep winning. Then you go home and do your home stuff.

I bring up work because so many of us are defined by our jobs, and in America especially, we tie our identities to our occupation.

Don’t Let What You Do Determine Your Worth

I’m a teacher. I’m a guitarist in a rock band. I’m a freelance writer. I’m also a 41-year-old man with a Master’s degree that doesn’t have his shit figured out any more than most of you. (I definitely have it more figured out than some of you out there, though – and no, you probably don’t know who you are… that’s the point.) None of those things make me Brandon, though. They’re things I do, not things I am. I am a living human being with whatever it is we call a soul, and sentience, and intrinsic value.

I hit this wall hard a few months back when I moved back to Spokane and went from being a well-known and respected teacher with a lot of experience and an advanced degree to being a nobody who’s had to sub for most of this school year. Let me tell you, folks, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Aside from the financial fallout – which was significant – I went through an identity crisis over the whole thing as well. Why wasn’t I good enough? I thought, over and over and over again. What am I doing wrong?

I felt like if I didn’t get a job I was going to be worthless, and some of my experiences as a sub have unfortunately worked to support those thoughts. My counselor and I talked about worth, though, and that’s when I really started contemplating this issue.

Is a Doctor Worth More Than a Shipping Clerk?

Well of course the doctor is worth more! What a silly question, right? I mean, think about the language we use to talk about one’s financial status – we say “What’s your net worth?” That’s not really what we mean, though, is it? What we really mean is “What is the total value of all of the material assets that belong to you?” or, in other words “What’s the net worth of your stuff?” That takes longer to say, though, so we simply say “What’s your net worth?” or “Her net worth is…” This simple little linguistic curiosity, though, has eaten into our collective psyche like a cancer.

I’ve never been a doctor, but I’ve been a shipping clerk, and the company I worked for manufactured surgical instruments. Now who’s worth more?

What I’ve just done is shifted this conversation from one about money and its impact on a person’s value to one about utility and its impact on a person’s value. When we look at it like that, we might still say the doctor is more useful because she saves lives directly, while the shipping clerk requires less investment in training and resources and can be more easily replaced, so whether or not that particular shipping clerk delivers those supplies is irrelevant. On the other hand, there may be only one doctor in the world that can perform the surgery your child desperately needs. So looking at it from a utilitarian standpoint, a doctor is still considered by society to be more valuable than a shipping clerk.

So Why Is a Pro Athlete or Entertainer Worth More Money Than The President?

Good question. If it’s all about utility and usefulness to society, then why do the people who typically make the most outrageous amounts of money do so little “meaningful” or “useful” work? If we really value what we’re willing to spend millions of dollars on, then we value the lives of people who entertain us through sports, song, or acting much more than we value the Commander in Chief (I’m referring to the office, by the way, not the current pig residing in it) of our defense forces.

A Doctor, A Shipping Clerk, A Pro-Quarterback, and the President Are All Standing Atop The Space Needle…

Imagine that, ridiculous though it may be, for a moment. They’re all lined up at the rail when the big one hits – the 9.0 quake that’s been overdue forever in the Puget Sound. A person standing behind the four of them sees all of them about to go over. This person knows who each of them is, even the shipping clerk. The person can reach out and save one of those lives. Which one should she choose?

They all have families, living or not, estranged or not. They all breathe in oxygen, have beating hearts, and long for a certain someone to hold them at night. Sometimes they are just too scared to get out of bed in the morning, or they’re too excited about life and they have to run up to a complete stranger and tell them the news. How does this person chose to whom she should extend her hand and save?

Beyond that, what if we assume that the person standing behind the four at the rail is a homeless woman with no job and a heroin addiction. Five minutes before the quake, most everyone on that observation deck would look at her and – somewhere deep down inside – decide how much value she had based on her shabby clothes and needle marks and missing teeth. In that moment, however – when their lives are in her hands – she could be the most valuable person in the world.

So What?

I’m still wrestling with this one, ladies and gents. Society definitely places value on human life, and that value is variable based on occupation, the value of one’s assets, or a whole host of other factors – including some we never even touched, like disability and disease. Human life has to all have the same value. It has to. I just don’t know how we get there. Maybe it just starts with trying to be as empathetic as possible as often as possible. I think that’s as good a place to start as any. So enjoy yourself today, and try to be nice to someone – because they’re worth it, no matter what they do or how much money they have.

Header Photo Credit: By Sdwelch1031 – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

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  1. Pingback: Mantra Monday: Why Make A Commitment? | Brandonia

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