Thomas the Tank EngineI couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Island of Sodor, but what I was really writing about was something my wife and I have taken to calling the ‘worth economy.’ It’s kind of like the dollar economy: your actions and words give — or take — worth away from other people. But the dollar economy is, more or less, a zero-sum game. There are only a limited amount of dollars in the world, and unless you’re the Federal Reserve, your only option for making money is to take it from someone else.

The worth economy is different, however, because you can create worth in other people without taking it from yourself. Similarly, you can destroy worth in other people without giving any to yourself. One of the most common mistakes humans make is believing that putting other people down makes the put-downer somehow better. That’s false. What’s true, and this is one of the most profound things I’ve ever encountered, is that making other people feel more worthy adds to your own worth.

The Problem
Unfortunately, it’s very easy to put other people down, and it’s very hard to add to other people’s self-worth. Here’s an example.

I’ve been talking a lot on my blog about my father-in-law and my step-mother-in-law. They haven’t talked to us for a few weeks, but we got another email from the SMIL today entitled “Blog The Truth.” She accused me of stretching the truth in order to look more put-upon than I really am, and of taking more pleasure in criticizing people than I do in being grateful.

This led to probably one of the longest and most difficult discussions I’ve ever had with my wife. She’s really heavily into this ‘worth economy’ thing, and honestly I’m still trying to figure it out. But she told me that my SMIL was right — that specifically as regards her, the way I’ve been writing in this blog makes her (and to a lesser degree my FIL) look like a villain. She told me that I’d better figure out how to empathize with her and explain why her feelings were hurt, or I was going to end up ruining my relationship with both of them.

Here’s the thing — I suck at empathizing. I think I’ve mentioned that before, but just in case I haven’t, it’s true. I’m combative, and I’m focused on the short-term, quickest solution to a given situation. When someone is acting in a way you can’t understand, the short-term, quickest solution is to tell them that the way they’re acting is wrong and to stop it.

Suffice it to say, that doesn’t work. Like, ever.

Empathize, right now. Go!
So, I have this challenge in front of me: empathize with a woman who has really upset me and made me feel worth less, and figure out why she’s upset. It took me a long, long time to get to the point where I was able to, and I was only able to at all because my wife helped me figure out that I’m the one who started this whole thing.

It was right here:

I personally feel the pressure every time I visit my father-in-law’s house for a holiday — he sits down and talks to me about how my job as freelance Internet writer is going. It’s like he’s compelled by some inner drive for ‘success’ to find some piece of advice he can offer about something that I could be doing better at my job. (He’s never offered the slightest bit of advice about being a father.)

And this, highly paraphrased, is what I told my wife:

“At some point, my SMIL read that blog post, and when she did, she realized that we don’t necessarily see them (the FIL and SMIL) as ‘good’. And because she read this just after we were already exchanging emails about my discomfort coming over to their house, that realization probably made her sick to her stomach.

“So, she responded in basically the same way I did when I thought that my mother saw me as the ‘bad guy’: she went on the offensive. She sent that email about the big boy pants, not because she was attacking me, but because she was defending her husband. Because she saw us painting him as a villain.

“And when I mentioned her on a few other occasions in my blog, it was always to point out something that she did or said that made me feel less worthwhile as a person — which, again, made it seem like she was a villain and like I didn’t approve of her or appreciate her. It’s no wonder that at this point, she’s really upset about the things I’ve said.”

Because, you see, I have been unintentionally casting my SMIL as someone who doesn’t add worth to the lives of the people around her — at least not my life. And that’s simply not true at all. I actually get a lot of value out of my time with both of them. I can count on three things every time we visit their house:

  • Excellent food
  • Playing video games with my…uhh…step-sister-in-law’s son? That would be my…nephew?
  • Fascinating conversations about current events both local and national.

And since the food is always unlike any we would make, and I don’t get much time to play video games at home, and the conversations I have at home are with someone that agrees with me on almost everything, well, that’s actually a whole lot of value that they add to my life. It’s certainly not anything that I would ever want to lose. But that’s not the lesson here.

The Moral Of The Story
I’m sure you get the lesson already, but I’ll spell it out for you just in case. The worth economy is not necessarily a zero-sum game: it’s possible for everyone to win. But when you do what I did — when you use your platform to cut other people down and make them feel worthless — you make it worse than just zero-sum. You make it lose-lose. That’s not what I want, and I’m sorry that I did it.

I’m not going to claim that I understand the worth economy concept as well as my wife does — it was her epiphany, after all, and I’m busy having insights of my own over here — but I’m starting to wrap my mind around the concept. It starts, simply enough, by looking at what you’re doing and how it adds or subtracts from the worth of the people around you. Then, you find the things that do the subtracting, and you do less of them. Then, you find ways to do more adding.

And because of that silly little miracle of feeling better about yourself when you make others feel better about themselves, everybody wins. Oi Oi.