Measuring One’s Worth

I met her for the first time when I was about fourteen. She was newly adopted into a family I often babysat and was an adorable, impish bundle of energy with flashing eyes and a smile that warmed your heart.

While her energetic spirit and curiosity no doubt provided challenging times for her adopted parents and her two older siblings, there was just something about that child that made the world seem so right when she wrapped her arms around you in the most loving of hugs.

Life got more challenging as she got older and started school. That never ending energy was difficult to harness and teachers complained about her short attention span and impulsivity in the classroom. And, although clearly a bright child on so many levels, she struggled to learn. Ultimately a battery of tests diagnosed her with a multitude of learning disabilities.

Years later, despite what they had originally been told, her parents learned their daughter’s birth mother had been an alcoholic who drank excessively throughout her pregnancy. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place as they learned more about the potential impact of that alcohol. It became heartbreakingly clear that their adopted daughter had been born with “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome” or FAS and a brain that never had a chance to fully develop.

In addition to the challenges in school caused by her learning disabilities, memory problems, and short attention span, she had difficulty communicating her feelings in an appropriate manner and in controlling her own behaviour.

Like so many others with FAS she got herself into a lot of trouble because of the impulsivity and inability to understand the consequences of her actions. As a result, over the years she made some really inappropriate choices involving men, sex, drugs, alcohol, and money that created grief and a rollercoaster of ups and downs for both her and her family.

Not surprisingly, and despite the coaching and intervention of a lot of well-meaning government employees and counselors over the years, she has also had an incredibly difficult time holding down a job.

As much as anything, that inability to hold down a job has marked her by many as a failure.

But is that fair? Is economic success our only form of measuring how worthy we are as an individual?

According to Dr. Don Reid from the University of Guelph who spoke at last week’s World Leisure Congress in Quebec City, our society places a high emphasis on one’s employability and ability to generate income. That is in fact the key driver behind today’s Workfare and its efforts to move individuals off social assistance and into the workforce.

But, Reid suggests, aren’t there other strategies we should be using to measure an individual’s worth? Is life success only about money?

Obviously not.

So, as he puts it, maybe we should instead be thinking about Workfare as Worthfare?

Perhaps, he suggests, we’d all be better off if we instead focused our energies on helping individuals develop their own worth as well as the worth of the broader community? Wouldn’t an emphasis on that kind of productivity reflect a more appropriate definition of success? 

The reality is that there are many who may never be successful in holding down a regular job or in managing money. That doesn’t make them a failure or less worthy as a human being. It does mean that like every other human being they have strengths as well as challenges.

As Reid also suggests, an individual’s strengths and worth can often be identified and explored through one’s leisure time and recreation activities. For example, as a child the little girl I once babysat learned about her unusually high kinesthetic intelligence through figure skating and swimming. Instead of continuing to use leisure to explore and develop how this might contribute to her life competencies, all energies seem to have been focused on helping her hold down what have amounted to a lot of rather menial jobs.

However, as of now, she’s doing okay. She is living with a man who seems to respect her and she has finally landed in one place long enough to be assessed and deemed eligible for a disability pension.

Struggling to understand her life and the choices she’s made over the years, her loving but heartbroken family for the most part remain on the periphery of her life. They have though been good about providing her with a monthly annuity that helps her pay the bills.

We’re not quite sure what will happen next but I know I’ll do what I can to encourage her to get involved in recreation activities that will help her to learn more about her strengths and the gifts she has to give. After all, when it does come time to account for our lives, she too will want to know she has done the best she can to care for both herself and the greater community.

That’s probably a good thing because I’m guessing the ultimate assessment at the pearly gates is much more likely to focus on worth rather than work. 


Posted on 10-12-08

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