(by Henry Unga lds.ord 5-9-16)
I was 11 years old when I realized I had no friends. It was the beginning of 5th grade in a new school, and, besides, everybody probably feels similar when they’re that young anyway. But even if that’s true, it didn’t soften the blow when the Val-O-Grams—those special valentines students purchased and had sent to their best friends—were delivered to all the classrooms and everyone seemed to get ten and I only got one—and it was from my mom.
I was 17 years old when I experimented with the harshest of hair products because the statement I was making with my ripped jeans and worn boots wasn’t getting enough of the attention I wanted from my high school peers. If they weren’t looking at or talking about me, it was as if I didn’t exist.
I was 21 years old when I knew I was the worst missionary in the history of the Church. I wasn’t baptizing as much as others, I wasn’t called to leadership positions when younger missionaries were, and I simply didn’t feel the persistent, all-encompassing glow I once associated with missionary work and righteousness and following the rules.
I was 26 years old when I finally graduated from college and was offered a job I felt I had to accept to feel like a contributing adult. And soon after I took the job, I silently wished that I could go back and start over again. Because, at the time, I wasn’t brave enough to say no to a job I knew wouldn’t fulfill me even though it would pay my bills. Because I wasn’t traveling the world or interning at Universal Studios or playing in the NFL or publishing bestsellers or making the kind of money that would ensure an early and prosperous retirement. I was at a desk. And it appeared everyone else was living their dream.
And I was 28 years old when my wife was diagnosed with a terminal lung disease. And beyond how many friends I had, how good-looking I felt I was, how respected I was by my peers, how glamorous or rich I was or wasn’t, my understanding of self-worth became how I used my new pain and past experiences to acquire the compassion necessary to truly love someone other than myself. And what if that’s the secret? What if pouring yourself—the good and the hidden—into those around and beyond you afforded you the kind of self-worth you can’t get from social media or one of the thousands of self-help books crowding our shelves? What if outward compassion rather than inward reflection is the barometer with which God measures our intended purpose and value? Well, I think it might be. Or at least it’s a strong component. Because I’ve never felt more worthy as a son of God than when I first started washing my wife’s hair because lifting her own arms to shampoo her hair became too much for her lungs to handle. I’ve never felt so purposeful and satisfied than when I made the obvious choice of disappearing into the full-time care and round-the-clock concern of a most precious and delicate daughter of God.
Maybe not having friends in 5th grade meant I wasn’t being a friend to my classmates. Maybe not feeling attractive in high school meant I needed to step away from my mirror and look out my window. Maybe not receiving the leadership roles I felt I needed in order to really make a difference as a missionary meant that I wasn’t fully serving those closest to me—my missionary companions and the families who were looking to us for gospel understanding. Maybe feeling enslaved to a job that wasn’t the coolest or most lucrative meant that I didn’t yet understand that it would be outside the hours of 9 to 5 where my happiest, hardest, and most sacred work would be done. And maybe feeling cheated by 78 “likes” on a posted picture that I thought deserved a million means I’ve swung too far from what I once understood about self-worth and have parlayed my divine identity into an idea of someone I’m not quite and perhaps never will be.
I’m now 29 years old. And maybe that’s too young to know exactly who or what I am. But being 29 is probably old enough to know what I’m not. I know I’m not merely a resume or a cultural demographic or a body type or a tax bracket or a profile picture. And I know I’m not reduced to those arbitrary things because I know I am more than simply myself.
I am what I am to my wife and to my friends and family and to my neighbors and coworkers and fellow freeway drivers. I am what I am to the 54-year-old server who cleans up after me and thanks me for coming in even though I under-tipped. I am what I am to the person who doesn’t like me and especially to the person I’m not too fond of either. I am what I am to those I should be serving more, to those I should be reaching out to more, to those I should be writing to instead of writing this. I am how I love others because that’s one of the few things I can actually control in this life, and it’s possibly the only way I can tangibly measure my true self-worth. But mostly, I am how I love others because that’s all God asks of me—and because that’s all I can give Him. And maybe that’s good enough.