The election is coming. Soon we’ll “all” vote. Actually, soon those of us committed to voting will mostly vote, some of us who are less committed will make the time for it, but a sadly large percentage of the eligible population will let the opportunity slip by. Still, Election Day is coming, voting will be done, and a decision will be reached that will affect the course of our lives for many more than four years to come. What are your values?

Pen and paper handy? ;-)

Pen and paper handy? 😉

I’m sitting here this morning contemplating values, value statements, and how difficult it is for people to answer the question “what are your values?”  For a long time I struggle with it, myself.  “What are your values?” isn’t properly answered by a statement of what decisions I would make based on the values I hold. “What are your values?” is also not seeking the same answer as to the question “what do you value?”, which could be seeking a material answer, or a state of being, more than the foundational underpinning of one’s decision-making, or personal… context?

I’m thinking about values this morning because the emotional fuss in my Facebook feed, and in the media generally, regarding the approaching election reveals a lot about people’s underlying values – things they can’t really “un-say” later. I find myself listening, and listening with great care and attentiveness. I’m not listening to which candidate any one person says they favor, it’s not about that; I’m listening to what people are saying their values are – what their deep down didn’t-straight-up-say-it-before-values are. It tells me about who they are, as human beings.

What are your values? Do you value respect? Do you value consideration? What about things like “truthfulness”, “family”, “education”, “power”, “strength”… there are so many things we might hold dear and build upon all our lives without naming quite clearly in our thinking – and without mindfulness awareness of who we have become over time. This morning it hits me differently, and I understand that the question “what are your values?” is another way of asking “who are you?”. The answer is far more telling, because it reveals some of the “why” as well as some of the “who”.

We let conflict creep into our values sometimes, usually a byproduct of bias, or due to having paid lip-service to something we think we should value, even though over time it becomes clear that our actual lived values are something quite different. Sometimes, the things we say we value… aren’t “values”, at all. In my own thinking, a value is sort of a metaphysical molecule in our understanding of the world, on which we build who we are, and guide who we will become. Some of what we value, we learn at home as children, and in school as we grow up. Some of what we learn is explicitly taught. Much of what we learn, for values, we just soak up as we grow, learning from those around us what is acceptable, what is not, and what is comfortable to say aloud socially, and these things become our values, implicitly. Many of us never reach beyond those early implicit values. Some of us must awaken to the bitter-sweet knowledge that our early life implicit value learning is deeply flawed, and we either lose our way in life, or carve our own path, under-taking to demolish old values, and embrace new ones. We’re very fancy primates to be able to reflect, to choose, and to change by the power of our will – and our practices.

We become what we practice. We practice what we value. What are your values? If you must make this journey, and there is no map, and you must rely on your values to guide you down life’s path, wouldn’t it be helpful to know what your values are, in a clear and simple way? (That’s intended as a rhetorical question, because the answer seems an obvious “yes” to me.) So… do you? Do you know what your values actually are, as you sit here reading these words? Can you name them? I found, when I started down this willful, mindful, careful path of practicing practices, taking care of me, and sorting out the chaos and damage, that I could not. I could not easily answer the question “what are your values?”, and honestly I found that fairly frightening. Was I really living my life based on decision-making resulting from potentially unknown values? Were my implicit values overdue to be reconsidered – and how would I do that, if I could not name them? I knew all my personal demons by name… how could I not similarly be intimately familiar with my values? Yikes.

That was some years ago. I sat down with pen and paper (those were things, back in the day 🙂 ) and three questions.

  1. What are your relationship values?
  2. What three values would you choose to build your life upon, if you were to choose your values based on adult experience and understanding of life right now?
  3. Do these values, taken together, allow you to continue to become the person you most want to be, practiced over time?

Finishing this exercise took several days of careful consideration, and reconsideration. The idea behind these particular three questions is a simple one; I interact with others, I exist as my own person, and I seek to grow over time. Answering these three questions provides me insight into doing those things with greater skill, and better outcomes. 🙂

I got tangled up in all the most common ways, considering these questions of values. I wrote paragraphs where a word would do. I lied to myself to align to cultural norms. I wrote answers that didn’t have anything to do with me personally but sounded great on paper. I stretched definitions to cover what I wanted to be real and true, rather than own my shit so I could make other choices. I fumbled in the darkness. I let myself approach these questions with new eyes each morning for days, and again every evening before I fell asleep. I wrestled with childhood baggage, and a lifetime of chaos and damage. I felt wrapped in wreckage, as if emotional concertina wire tightened around me as I struggled. Then I stopped struggling with the questions. I answered them, simply, and honestly, and accepting what matters most to me, personally.

For me, answering these three questions of personal values became my bridge between that woman struggling through so much chaos and damage, and that woman I most wanted to be… out there… that future me… a wiser woman, a kinder woman, a franker, fairer, more compassionate woman. Understanding that knowing my values explicitly would provide me a clearer opportunity to practice them mindfully was a wonderful moment of awakening. I don’t know that it is the sort of thing that is easily shared in words, but it has mattered too much not to try. (Hell, maybe I’m late to the party, and everyone else already got the memo…?)

What are your relationship values? These guide how you treat others, and how you allow others to treat you. They guide which relationships you’ll maintain, and which you’ll choose to walk away from – or whether you are able to choose to walk away, at all. (It turns out they also guide how we treat ourselves.) I talk about my “Big 5”; they are my answer to this question. (Respect, Consideration, Reciprocity, Compassion, and Openness)

What three values would you choose to build your life upon, if you were to choose your values based on adult experience and understanding of life right now? It didn’t have to be three, it could be two, or five, or 17 – although that seems excessive, and possibly difficult to manage. I chose three – because three is what I live, myself, and these are the values that I build my future on, and have chosen with deliberate care. They require practice, and ask much of me. In practicing them, they pull me toward my future. Mindfulness, sufficiency, and perspective are the three values I am choosing to build my life upon. It has made a great deal of difference in how I make decisions, and why I make the choices I do. What will you choose? What will you do about your choice? Having the intention, do you also have the will – and the verbs? There’s a lot of practice involved in this one, particularly if growth is part of the plan. It’s probably emotionally safer… easier, perhaps… to choose to answer this question only in terms of the being you are here, now. Even that is a significant improvement over struggling within the framework of implicit values learned in childhood without ever being considered with care. Make no mistake, this is a challenging question to ask one’s self, and the answer demands a lot of us once we know it. 🙂

Do these values, taken together, allow you to continue to become the person you most want to be, practiced over time? Simply enough, if the answer is clearly “no”… begin again. Ask the questions again. Consider the questions again. Answer the questions again. Consider your answers with great care; is this who you are? Is it who you most want to be? When the final answer is clearly “yes”… then the work begins in earnest, every decision, every choice, each moment, every day. There are verbs involved. Your results may vary. You’ll probably begin again, often. Still… in a life where you are your own cartographer, having your own experience, walking your own path, this seems a very good start to building a useful map. 🙂

So… what are your values? Whether you know the answer to the question or note, they will determine your vote in the next election, and in everything you do, and every relationship you have.  😉 Today is a good day to be who you are; every journey starts somewhere.