In my previous blog post titled “Goals” (You can scroll down to see older posts) which was prompted by talk about New Year’s resolutions, I bemoaned the realization that “goals” don’t help me that much when facing the more nuanced decisions I face in life.
I concluded in that “goals” post that I needed something more than just goals to help me make tough decisions. I do have some touchstones or directional guideposts that I can use to help me make decisions. One word for these touchstones is “values.”
The word “values” is way over-used and often misused to represent a code (e.g. “family values”) or equated to absolute universal truths. To me “values” are very personal and they are neither universal nor absolute.
I have always had trouble with absolute rules in life because there is always at least one exception to every rule. Values provide a flexibility and interpretation that hard and fast rules don’t allow. They point me in a direction without tying my hands like an absolute rule that forces me to make a choice that just does not seem right.
Where Do My Values Come From
My parents both died last spring at age 92. They pretty much lived by the Ten Commandments although I never heard either one say that they did. Even my Dad the Presbyterian minister rarely mentioned the Ten Commandments. Both Mom and Dad focused more on the New Testament teachings of Jesus to love one another, help the poor and sick, and “to do unto others” as they would have others do unto them. They did not so much preach as they walked the walk. They left the talking to others. They led by example. That they were Christian never had to be said. Dad never wore a clerical collar or ever introduced himself as “reverend”, just as “Jim.”
The Ten Commandments and teachings of Jesus seem pretty much on track, and certainly they influence me and my values, however, as a career soldier and Marine, that whole thing about not killing people and loving my enemies did pose a conundrum for me.
I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout although not exactly a stellar member, only making it to the rank of 2nd Class. I was in it for the fun and the camping trips. But I did retain some of the Boy Scout Oath and it seems to mostly ring true even today: A scout is brave, loyal, respectful, kind, courteous, helpful, etc. Seems like they were on to something although they also included a rather loaded commandment to be “morally straight” which I have trouble accepting on several levels.
Superman had a pretty clear mission of fighting for truth and justice which seem admirable, but he also added in “and the American Way”, which, like “Morally Straight” is pretty hard for me to wrangle in. These kind of “coded values” can be whatever one wants it to be and they can be used to justify otherwise bad behavior and hatred.
So as helpful as these lists of rules and descriptions of right and wrong may seem, they don’t answer all questions and I find I have to pick and choose. None are absolute, save perhaps, “love one another.”
Just Do the Right Thing
“Trust your gut, Jim.” At various times I have heard that phrase from friends, counselors, bosses, and from family members trying to help me make a decision. I am sure that they all meant well, but this approach does not help me to decide the really hard choices.
Some decisions, even though they may cause you physical or financial pain or inconvenience, are pretty clear. I don’t commit felonies and I pretty much obey the lessor rules, like not butting in line. I will wait at the corner until the “white man walking” lights up, even if others have looked both ways and gone against the orders of the “red hand”.
These are not the kind of decisions that confuse me and they are not what I am talking about in this post even though there is clearly a relationship between these “rules of the road” and underlying values like fairness, safety, citizenship, etc.
What I am most troubled by are really tough things to decide, the ones which involve competing values:
“Should I sit in my easy chair, read the paper, drink coffee and savor the moment, or write that thank you note to someone who has helped me recently?”
“Should I give the homeless guy a buck or follow the advice to not further enable an addict?”
“Do I “Follow my dream/passion”, as is a popular theme lately, and thereby, put myself first; or do I do what needs to be done for a greater good, something I am good at even if it is not something I truly enjoy?”
When “values” compete I have a hard time deciding what to do.
The Chicken or the Egg?
Cognitive dissonance is a term I remember from grad school – not sure exactly what course, but hey, it stuck somehow. Shrinks and marketing gurus use cognitive dissonance to describe the phenomenon of people allowing their actions, not their values, to drive their future decisions.
The text book example I remember is a big purchase decision on something like a car. If you are trying to choose between one that has a higher safety record or one which has better mileage you may be stuck (dissonance) between these two values – safety and economy.
Once a choice is made, however, people then change the relative importance of that value to fit their action. So, if you choose the “safe” car, you now value safety more than economy. You are now more likely to not only say that, but to make a similar choice in the future.
An example might be Volvo purchasers who tend to stick with “safe” cars in the future, or Prius owners who go with high mileage or hybrid cars. The act of buying a Prius makes you value efficiency more. The cart is now in front of the horse.
How is This Working For Me?
For identifying values to live by this concept of cognitive dissonance creates the whole chicken or egg discussion. I think that many times in my life I have adjusted my values to match the decisions I have made previously.
When I did not squeal on classmates in HS who had cheated on tests or committed various acts of vandalism, I certainly justified this by saying (at least to myself) how much I value loyalty.
When I joined the Marines, patriotic duty became relatively more important value than the “Thou shall not kill” commandment.
When I moved to a new suburb outside Atlanta for “good schools” the value of education for my children became more important than value of supporting integration and ethnic diversity.
Whether the decision is ultimately “a good one” or “a bad one” I still have justified these decisions, at least initially, by changing my value system so that my values were “in sync” with what I had done. In cases where the decision turns out to be really “bad” in the long run, it is very helpful that “forgiveness” is one of the key elements of Christianity – we all need an out.
And So the Point Is?
As I look back, sometimes my values have helped me to do the “right” thing, sometimes not. Often what seems “right” changes over time. My values don’t seem to have changed radically, but they have evolved. I am pretty sure that most of you reading this have had similar experiences about decisions you have made in your lives.
So after all this, I have to conclude that I can’t really look totally to a set of “values” alone to help me figure out what to do in a tough situation. I really have to go to a higher source for the answers:
What’s it all about Alphie?