An artist hangs two pictures in a gallery. Both are precisely the same dimensions. One he prices at $500, the other he prices at $400. His reasons for doing so have nothing to do with the paintings’ size, frames, or the amount of paint expended on either. He simply likes one better than the other. Technically, numerically, one painting is worth less than the other. When I was a boy I was called a bad loser, and I was. For the game to be fun it had to mean something, and for the game to mean something the ending had to mean something. But the end was where the world was divided in two, into those who had won and those who had lost. Why would the winning matter unless the loser lacked what the winner had gained in victory? By this math, was not the loser worth less than the winner?

It was easy to call my howls of loser’s pain tantrums, but they were the expression of my first attempts to align myself to that with which no one can be aligned. If it were possible that I could be worth in even one penny less than another human being, then happiness itself—a thing without shape or country but more valuable than gold or seaside property—could be incrementally denied me. In this way, if you are worth one penny less, and if that one penny is the difference between happiness and unhappiness, you might as well be worthless.

I do not consider it an interesting semantic trick that for humans “worth less” became “worthless,” that relative value became no value. Though we measure and measure and measure ourselves, though we rank ourselves, compete against ourselves, judge ourselves, our actual value is an all-or-nothing equation. It defies the laws of the physical world, but so it was meant to be. We can hang price tags on all the paintings we want, but if looking at that painting does not make us happy, it is, to us, worthless.

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