Your values are not YOU.
It is a very hard truth to absorb.
When an ideal, a belief, a value, something we hold very dear is rejected by someone, it can feel as though we ourselves are being rejected.
I’ve been on both sides of this phenomenon, giving and receiving such rejection. It can hurt! Most of us have felt that sort of rejection. We can take it very personally, for example, when a family member chooses another road than we had in mind, when a child rejects the religion of her parents, or when half the country rejects the candidate you voted for.
In recent years in our political life I have observed people feeling personally rejected on a level they never have before. Those who were opposed to Obama felt so personally bad about him that for years they wanted nothing but to see him discredited, blamed, and obstructed. Now, those who voted for Obama and Clinton feel their values have been roundly rejected and are protesting even before the Trump presidency starts.
Your values are not YOU. The things you hold most important are concepts in your mind, they are not YOU.
This can sound very abstract, I know. But pull it down to earth – what it means is that you, as a living, breathing, human being, with a mind, have the ability to transcend even those values that you most hold dear, even the beliefs you think are the most bedrock, even the ideals you most treasure.
You also have the ability to stand apart from even the most important, meaningful, and life-defining goals, plans, and actions that are based on your set of values.
In practice, this means we can separate our being, our SELVES, from the beliefs we hold, and connect to other people who hold differing beliefs. It means we can see others who reject some of our values in a different light, because fundamentally we don’t base our selves or their selves on the values they hold. We hold them sacred apart from their values.
I may believe in heaven, you may not. I may believe in the fundamental value of diversity. You may not. I may reject the argument for the existence of god, you may support it wholeheartedly. I may be Democrat, you may be Republican. I may not care at all about Black Lives Matter, you may look at it as the most important movement around. The point is: none of these things really define us, internally, as human beings.
Values may govern our behavior. They may define how we choose to organize ourselves together as a governed society, and in turn those choices may determine results (sometimes life or death) for other people in practical ways that we do not always grasp, meaning we must still talk and learn about each other’s values, and write thoughtful policy based on our learning and our dialogue about our values. Values are very important.
But what I am trying to get across right now is, the values we hold are not essential to who we are.
What is left when we stand apart from our values? If we think the answer is “Nothing At All” we will fight tooth and claw for our values, and become really inept and insensitive to other viewpoints, because it seems like life or death. We will cut off opportunity to do the learning and dialogue that are necessary to govern together.
When our values are identical with ourselves, then when the value goes away, so do we. Our brains, with this slight-of-hand, go into fight or flight very easily. We are wired to self-protect, and those mechanisms go haywire when something as deep seated as our values seems threatened.
But if, on the other hand, our answer to the question, What are we without our most treasured values? is Something, a very robust Something, even if don’t know what that Something is and can’t wholly define it yet, we have reason to work together with those other humans whose values we do not share. We have reason to listen to their beliefs and to their arguments about what is good, right, and true. We have reason to respect what makes them happy, what they wish for in life, what drives them, and what they are trying to move away from, or fix, or solve.
Human beings are complicated, our bodies and minds interact in ways we have never previously understood. We form beliefs, we hold values. We begin to mistake those for our essential nature, our essential selves. We jumped to conclusions about our fundamental selves, and forgot that our value-forming process is just an aspect of ourselves.
This is how philosophical reflection can open practical ways forward. How do we live and move and have our being in the same spaces as others? How do we learn to exist peaceably (a value), in a kaleidoscopic world of competition (another value) and violence (another value). How do we arrive at somewhat of a consensus (another value) about the values we share, about which values we are choosing as the most important ones, which ones most serve humanity, both individually and collectively (more values)?
We cannot do so without first separating ourselves from those very values, so that we can stand back and evaluate them.
Can we engage this rational process, in the service of our ability to live and be together?
Can we access the parts of ourselves that simply exist, without and prior to values? I believe we can, but we aren’t very good at it. We need guideposts.
Future posts promised on this topic, and I would love to hear your thoughts as well.