Last week the topic of patience prompted an in depth look at misconceptions we hold about God’s character and the fear those misconceptions produce in us. Specifically the fear of asking God for help because we think the kind of help he might give us will hurt.
Living in fear of the very one you need, and are supposed to ask for help and be able to trust, is soul-crushing.
That’s not our worst fear, though.
I’m convinced humans have a universal deepest fear.
But first, Thomas the Tank Engine.
My oldest son, Dorian, went through a Thomas obsession which lasted about two years. We watched the older series where the trains are real models on physical sets and the new CGI version. We had 4 different kinds of Thomas toys at one point: wooden trains and tracks, metal trains, mini trains, and plastic, battery powered TrackMaster trains that chuff along on their plastic tracks hauling loads from the newest episodes and full-length movies. We had blankets, sheets, pillows, clothes, shoes, DVD’s, and books.
I’ve stepped on more plastic train tracks than Legos, and they are just as painful!
One of Dorian’s favorite Thomas books had these buttons the side which you’re supposed to push whenever their sticker appears in the story line to add sound effects and character voices. He would sit in his carseat (right behind me in our little Corolla) and just push those buttons the whole time we were driving.
I can still hear the different tones of peeps, toots, and whistles in my mind. They are permanently seared into my Mom memory.
And so is the authoritative voice of Sir Topham Hatt, “Make sure to always be a really useful engine!”
You see, on the Island of Sodor the most important thing is to “be really useful” and the worst possible thing is to “cause confusion and delay”.
Sir Topham Hatt highly values the engines when they are really useful and punishes them when they are not. Especially when one disrupts the usefulness of other engines. Staying in Sir Topham Hatt’s good graces seems to be a serious challenge. (Although, the character is much more merciful in the newest series than in the original books or first video series.)
I never expected Thomas the Tank Engine to open a window into my own soul.
I’m terrified of being useless; of not being able to do enough, well enough. I know I’m not alone. You’ve seen the books and the devotionals and the blog posts proclaiming “You Are Enough!” I even saw a woman wearing a grey t-shirt that said “I am Enough” in shiny, gold calligraphy font (you know the one; the swoopy supposedly hand lettered font that’s on everything right now).
Why is “enough” so important to us?
It’s not really about productivity, efficiency, or lack thereof. It’s not about beauty or money or intelligence. There is a common motivation behind all these pursuits.
It’s about value.
And deeper than value: worthlessness.
Humanity’s greatest fear is being worthless.
I’m scared of being useless because when I’m useless to someone I am worthless to them.
I hear you already, “That’s not true! You’re not worthless! No one is worthless!”
Let’s be honest (and try to do so without getting cynical). You’ve felt it too.
We need value. Humans can’t tolerate being worthless. When a person becomes convinced they’re worthless, a burden or harmful to others instead of useful or at least pulling their own weight, they get suicidal.
Worthless: adj. (of a person) having no good qualities; deserving of contempt.
Synonyms: good-for-nothing, ne’er-do well, useless, despicable,
contemptible, base, low, vile, abject, debased, degraded, ignominious,
corrupt, villainous, depraved, degenerate, wretched, miserable, sorry,
feckless, incompetent, etc.
It’s so final. As if once you become worthless there is no longer any hope of gaining value.
What is so scary about the possibility of being worthless?
- You have no purpose, no reason to be here
- No one will value you, your thoughts, your words, your pain, your love
- So you are vulnerable to other people intentionally causing you pain or using you for their own satisfaction
- Everyone will eventually abandon you, you will be alone
We can’t stand it. We’ll do anything to avoid it.
We will do anything and everything we can to create value for ourselves and convince others of our value. We pour all our resources into making ourselves attractive in every sense of the word. We drive ourselves to never fail, to achieve perfection. We prioritize making everyone happy all the time.
But none of it satisfies the fear, so we throw more time, energy, and money into our efforts to create value because “We must not be doing enough. We just need to try harder!”
But none of us is perfect. Every mistake, every time we forget something or say the wrong thing or double book ourselves or overeat or relapse; every failure threatens to open the trap door and drop us into a pit of worthlessness.
When we are responsible for creating our own value we are also responsible for maintaining and defending it. When we inevitably fail, because none of us is perfect, we either keep trying harder and more desperately or slide into self-loathing. Both of which produce the exact opposite of what we hope to achieve by making ourselves valuable: love, connection, peace, security, satisfaction, meaning, resilience, hope, compassion, stability, generosity, health, basically all the good stuff. You know, the stuff people only get when they’re “worthy of it”.
Here’s an example from my own life in case you are having trouble finding application:
I’m afraid of being worthless, so I try to create value for myself by making everyone happy so they will think I’m valuable. I bend over backwards, go out of my way, never say no, and have zero healthy boundaries in my physical, emotional, and spiritual life. I’m a Christian so I call this “denying myself” and “serving others” and “picking up my cross”. When someone I’m close to is angry or upset I believe they are angry and upset with me. I panic because if they aren’t happy then I am useless to them! I cannot see the reality that I am not responsible for or in control of other people’s emotions, so my emotions are at the mercy of everyone else’s. If you’re happy, I’m happy. If you’re not happy, I’m terrified. I live in constant anxiety. But worrying shows a lack of faith, right? I assume God must be angry with me because of my failure to trust him so I simultaneously try harder and hide from him and his anger by not praying or reading my Bible because “I don’t have time”. My human relationships falter because I am so “insecure”. I pick apart every text for hidden meaning or possible misunderstanding. It’s too exhausting to hang out when I’m constantly second guessing everything I say and do in order not to offend anyone. I become resentful that no one tries as hard to make me happy as I try for them.
Oh man, that was a miserable way to live. I wouldn’t really call it “living”. It’s definitely not the abundant life Jesus promised us in John 10:10.
I’m aware that this post is long, the Thomas reference makes it kind of weird, and overall it’s pretty depressing. There is a flip side to living in fear of worthlessness though. I promise there’s hope and we will keep heading toward it in next week’s post!
But we have to be honest with ourselves about where we are before we can move forward. I’m choosing to spend time on this side of the value fence not because I want to be negative or cynical, but because I want us to understand where all this fear we live with comes from, what decisions its been making for us, and exactly what has to change so we can lead our fear instead of letting it drag us around.
Next week I’ll write about our options for facing the fear of worthlessness. Make sure you don’t miss it by Subscribing below!
If you have questions or want to talk more about how this applies to your specific situation contact me here, or ask in the comments!