Early on in every life, a child will look up and – implicitly – ask the world: Am I OK? Do I deserve goodwill and sympathy? Am I on track? And, most commonly, the person who first answers these questions is a parent.
Perhaps this parent happens to be generous and sympathetic, they are warm and understanding of the challenges of being alive – in which case the child develops an easy conscience.
In the years to come, they appraise themselves with benignancy, they don’t continuously have to wonder whether they have a right to exist.
They are comfortably on their own side. But if the parent is more punitive, the picture grows darker: approval is always uncertain, there is a constant fear of being called arrogant or of being upbraided for something one hadn’t thought about.
What’s tricky is that consciences don’t stay neatly identified with those who kickstarted them. It’s rare to find an adult who actively still wonders what their parents think.
But that isn’t to say that we aren’t wondering about our value in more general terms.
It’s just that we may, without noticing, have taken the question somewhere else – and very often, to particularly harsh modern figure of authority: media and social media.
To this pitiless arena, the self-doubting person now directs all their fears of unworthiness and panicked desire for reassurance.
To a system set up to reward sadism and malice, they constantly raise their phones and implicitly ask: Do I deserve to exist? Am I OK? Am I beautiful or respectable enough? And, because social media is built on the troubles of the individual soul, the verdict is never a reliable yes.
One is never done with cycles of fear and reassurance-seeking.
Every time their spirits sink (which is often), the self-doubting sufferer picks up their phone and begs to know whether they have permission to go on.
If this might be us, we should grow curious about, and jealous of, people who are free.
They are so because someone long ago settled the question of what they were worth and the answer has seemed solid ever since.
Social media is a roar in the next valley, not a mob in their own mind.
Learning from these calm souls won’t just involve deleting a few apps, we will have to go further upstream, back to the baby self, whose alarmed enquiries we must quiet once and for all with ample doses of soothing, and till-now absent kindness.