From the moment our eyes flutter open in the morning, something motivates and moves us—there is a reason, however within or outside our attention, perhaps a buried intention, a “why” underlying every choice, decision, and motion forward (or lack thereof). There usually isn’t cause to consciously think about what’s propelling us, not until something happens on the farther ends of the continuum, from wondrous to devastating. When acts of horror and tragedy take place, whether next door or on another continent, we understandably feel the ground beneath us as unstable. Our faith in humanity, “theirs” and often ours, alike, gets shaken.
“What?! WHY? How can people have no conscience?”
Certainly there are serious mental health issues, such as sociopathy, psychopathy, borderline personality disorder, xenophobia, etc., where we cannot APPEAL to a person(s). This is often the case with people whose choices we deem as without conscience, as “EVIL”—those who are beyond accessing in any dialogical or negotiative way. I would say that on a global level, a greater understanding of these mental disorders and stances can give us insight into how certain acts of terror can only become stopped through the use of a rigid boundary or even force—a horrifying option to entertain for those of us who believe in peace and non-violence … and there’s the chagrin involved in addressing it with the lack of being able to relate to a value system in the other.
This category of rigidity and fervor around a value system that precludes respect for life and is hinged on beliefs of WIN-LOSE, power OVER, better-than-worse-than, vengeance, and revenge takes us out of the category of being able to achieve a negotiated win-win. And these beliefs often have become engrained over hundreds of years, and passed down from multiple generations. And it requires us all, as a collective, to decide what this level of single-minded rigidity will be met with (if we want it to stop, often just temporarily), unfortunately, in kind. A devastating demanded response to those who are not able and are unwilling to find the win-win.
Certainly, this idea of horrifying behavior beyond which you can appeal to is beyond the scope of this piece on value-updating. Yet even microcosmic and less pathological versions of these value systems colliding exist for us in our day-to-day. As an example: If someone threatens your child as you stand with them on the street, what value wins out for you if you value non-violence, while at the same time, you value the instinct and importance of protecting your child no matter what? These are the junctures and choices that build our value system (and the order in which they are valued!) from the ground up. The rubber hits the road even further when two or more value systems WITHIN US crash up against each other. But make these decisions, we do. Consciously or not. These are the sacred junctures of profound self-definition.
In the quiet of our own interiors, often that which fuels our choices can remain a mystery even to ourselves—like when we’ve made a choice that we know doesn’t feel like a big fat yes IN OUR BODIES, but we can’t quite put our finger on why. This “I’m not entirely sure” energy in us may be imperceptible to others, but we ourselves feel the energy drop, or the subtle messages in our gut saying, “Something is off.” And sometimes we feel the more pleasant sensations of something feeling “exactly right.”
Often we don’t sense this internal “yes” or “no” until AFTER we make a decision. I so rely on this “I might only know AFTER the fact” effect that before I make big decisions I pretend I have made a choice in one direction … and see how it feels in my body. It’s the best way I know how to get a sense of whether I am making a right decision for me/my family/my peeps/the larger context.
Outside of the extreme versions, however, what is more often the case when we act in destructive ways (subtly or otherwise) is that we’re acting in accordance with values that we’ve adopted from family, our culture, our religion, our publicly extolled “Right ways of living”—values that often have little connection with who we really are; values that beg for an opportunity to be inquired into—to be updated and re-defined in order for them to match our CURRENT (and often increasingly intentional and conscious) value system. This is what we are asked to do as we evolve.
Once there is a value system in place that feels as though it honors the inextricable connection that we all have with each other and with the earth, we can live by it for the long-term without feeling the need to update it anymore—not out of rigidity and unwillingness to shift it, but rather because it speaks to the belief of our interconnectivity and simply no longer bears updating. This brings about a sense of solidity in our lives. A certainty, combined with an open mind and heart.
Aligning with our values
There is a lot of talk in the therapeutic and spiritual communities around how we must “reintroduce a moral code.” But I think what we really would benefit from introducing is an awareness of how good it feels in the body to be in alignment with our value system—and then to reproduce that feeling again and again. And we would benefit from remembering that guilt, when it is used appropriately and WELL, is a reminder of how well we are adhering to our own value system. How well we are living in integrity—with integrity meaning the degree to which we are living by our own value system. It would then make sense that guilt would be the perfect indicator of whether we are living in integrity or not. This is the degree to which our bodies can indicate whether we are oriented toward our personal value system—our true north—or not. And we are only asked to do this a hundred times a day, with every action or inaction we take. We are, in essence, defining our values every moment, whether we are aware of it or not.
This begs the question: What IS our value system?
We are rarely taught about values in a conscious way. And the whole collection of values that we gather up and consistently rely on—both our personal and cultural value systems—tend to be quietly acquired rather than mindfully chosen.
At best, we’re taught that we are innately bad, or at the very least likely to act badly if not closely watched, which I think is the big lie about life, out of the gate. If we speak to and rely on and have faith in the goodness of people, then we’re walking into a paradigm where our values—born from our own intuition and awareness of our connection and eye-to-eye value with each other—will reflect these beliefs. Certainly we can have more development in areas—some people run faster, use different parts of the brain at different levels of adeptness, roles require less or more of us, we learn the alphabet faster or slower, to be sure. But this does not speak to our innate worth. Our WORTH is of equal value to each other regardless of talents and capacities and achievements. With this in mind, the development of a value system is no longer about keeping us in check (aka, keeping us avoiding our innate badness). It is about keeping us in alignment with what we say is important to us—and there is an ocean of difference between the two.
Introducing the truth of who we are turns the whole “imposed moral code system” on its ass. First of all, the word “code” implies that there is some regulation that we need. I wouldn’t say we need regulation, I would say we need reorientation to the truth of who we are. That we are goodness itself to the core, regardless of the messages sent to us. Regardless of our lots in life. Regardless of our behaviors.
Yes, even though the behaviors often need to be stopped, addressed, or willfully ended—and they often warrant this—the core of who we ARE remains untouched. It is in the separation of the BEING and the BEHAVIORS where our liberation in this belief about our goodness can be found. And I believe that to believe in this goodness, unwaveringly, is the highest of activisms on this planet.
What matters to you?
I believe taking a look at our values from time to time is a very inspiring and grounding practice—a chance to get close to and re-familiarize ourselves with what matters to us, from the micro to the macro. But first it helps to define what values are in general before identifying our own particulars. Values are our guiding forces and principles. They imbue something neutral—in my case, fame, a song, a project, a creative collaboration, a marriage, or even making a meal—with a strong purpose, with strong meaning. The true-north orientation they provide enlivens every expression. Of course they can also motivate an entire company or global movement, which is why mission statements are so valuable.
How do YOU know if you value something—whether it’s a way of being, communicating, or relating to yourself and others? Whether it’s a relationship, friendship, a cultivated intelligence, a service, a boundary, or a way of moving through the world? How do you measure its importance or worth? Beyond the influences of others, no matter how lovely or convincing they may be, how do you sense the meaning and purpose of something for yourself?
I’m a big lover of lists and charts whenever I want to refresh my connection with the many aspects of my life. I’m including a list of things that may potentially help to prompt a remembrance of, or an opportunity to define for the first time, what you value the most.
- Relationships and Community (friendship, parenting, family, partner, colleagues)
- Health and Body (food, exercise, etc.)
- Work, Career and Service
- Creativity and Self-Expression
- Money and Organization
- Personal Growth and Responsibility-Taking
Feel free to add more categories to suit you. And by way of kick-starting how to approach the list, simply ask yourself regarding each: “What matters the most to me in this area?” Another follow-up question to that, which can help us to further be in our bodies, is: “How do I KNOW this matters to me so much? What sensations do I feel in my body that indicate a passion and a valuing for the things that matter to me?”
When you’ve finished, take a step back. Does your updated value system give you a sense of alignment with yourself—a “clicking into the perfect groove” for you? Does anything need to be added or taken away? You’ll know by how good it feels in your body. And remember, guilt can be your friend whenever you are unsure (of course, making sure it is appropriate guilt, not the inappropriate variety … more on that another time).
May your values guide your choices and commitments in all areas of your life, while leaving room for the values of others to flourish right alongside you.