Genesis of an Idea
The results of the 2016 presidential election have brought a wave of emotions into the forefront of American political discourse. Many people who wanted to see the first female president take the oath of office on January 20th were shocked to learn that Donald Trump had won enough electoral votes to emerge victorious. Their shock quickly morphed into disbelief and then into denial and eventually into protest and in some cities even into riots.
During this last week there has been no shortage of cries of hypocrisy from the right, frustrated that their victory isn’t being accepted by the entire electorate. Equally abundant have been anguished retorts from the left, astonished that a man with such a well-documented propensity for being hateful, personally critical, mocking, and downright mean was able to cinch the presidency. I’ve been participating in debates on social media, sharing articles that try to shed light on how this unexpected event actually happened, and struggling to articulate my reasons for being part of the distraught progressive camp. Such a constant repartée has left me tired and deflated and feeling like I’ve been playing whack-a-mole with one red-herring issue, one ill-informed respondent or one reactionary post after another. So I thought I need to pull back, to find the macro viewpoint that is so essential in the Chinese Medicine that I study and practice.
When my institution of higher learning wanted to expand and grow into a truly professional entity, one of the first things it spent time doing was crafting a mission statement — a collection of values and goals for the institution. This sort of soul searching process, filled with vigorous debate and discussion, resulted in a powerfully insightful and succinct statement of what the institution wanted to spend its time and resources pursuing. The college uses this mission statement and other guiding documents to determine whether or not an initiative is fitting for our institution and whether or not they can support it. They rely on the statement of values to inform their decisions and if anyone wants to know what kind of place our college is, they can take a look at the guiding documents to get a perfect picture. This process got me thinking that I should have a value statement or at least a list of values that I can use to understand how I feel about an issue, especially ones that are nuanced and have no easy solutions. As it turns out, creating such a document is difficult and is hard to organize but below you will find my current set of value statements and some simple explanation for why they matter to me. My hope is to revisit this list regularly and determine whether these values continue to represent my thinking and my heart and hopefully to be able to chart some change over time. I can only imagine how remarkably different my value statements would have been from my teenage years to my thirties, and I hope to have a chronicle of my evolving consciousness for the decades to come.
1.) Inclusion shall be the guiding principle at the core of every other value.
For nearly the entire history of humanity we have self-divided into tribes. That division has taken on many forms and many sorts of labels from those with money and status to those of a particular faith, from those of a distinct skin color to those of a particular political party and from those within a set of geographical boundaries to those that spoke a particular language. We’ve always done it that way and it has caused strong bonds within the groups and endless conflict between the groups. In the US in the last century we look painful strides to begin blurring the lines between the different tribes. We haven’t succeed yet in making everything cohesive and functional and in fact we have unearthed new tribes that run the gamut from gluten-intolerant to open-carry gun owners. And yet our goal to find common ground is one of my essential tenets. Thus, language or actions that seek to divide without purpose and to deride without consideration cannot be considered in line with this value. Working to create more tribes only serves to redirect our energy away from collectivism and toward disdain.
2.) Courage, especially in the face of terror, shall provide the strength to remain inclusive.
Living in the modern world can be a scary experience. We have been directly at war for the last fifteen years and in some sort of lethal conflict nearly every decade of the last hundred years. The face of our enemy today is hard to know and is hidden among seemingly regular people. Terror attacks have wracked countries and people all over the world and there is no shortage of dictators or autocratic theocracies. When faced with such real danger we have many different angles to consider, including retaliation or domination, passivity or apathy, but the one that resonates with me most is courage. That is, the courage to take my commuter train today even though I know that terrorists just attacked the Madrid subway system yesterday; the courage to accept Syrian refugees into our country even though they seem foreign and unknown and that some of the people or ideas we are fighting in the Middle East might be among them; the courage to speak up and stop someone from harassing a young man on the street because he’s wearing a skirt and pair of pink pumps. Courage is the value that gives us strength to be inclusive when it would be so much easier to retreat to our tribes.
3.) Consideration for other people’s experiences shall justify being courageous in the world.
The classic adage about walking a mile in another person’s shoes couldn’t be more apt to shape this particular value. Imagining what other people have gone through and how those experiences have shaped them is an essential component to how I understand being human. It often requires a huge level of imagination and disconnect with my own reality in order to find myself in the place of an immigrant Latina or a middle-aged factory worker. This exercise means that I take people at their word as they describe their experiences and their emotions connected to those experiences. I don’t get to decide how a person feels about a given situation or action, even if my first instinct is that they are overreacting or that their emotions are misplaced. Those assessments are for those individuals to make on their own self-reflection or in their own therapy sessions,not for me to decide that their reaction makes sense from my world view. Considering as many different experiences as possible will inspire me to be courageous in my approach of including those different experiences into my sense of self and place.
4.) Compassion shall drive me to consider the world from so many different points-of-view.
Life is very difficult for a lot of people. Even people who wouldn’t describe their lives as difficult deal with setbacks, heartbreak, and situations that test their resolve to continue the struggle of living a modern life. Hundreds of cliches exist to remind us that “someone else is having a worse day than you” or “being kind is always best,” and yet we often gloss over those aphorisms as overly Pollyanna and saccharine. Imagine if we instead spent effort trying to integrate those sentiments into our daily interactions. We could find restraint when cut off in traffic or find calm when talking to an irate customer on the phone. The expansion of our ability to empathize with humans not immediately in our tribes serves to expand our whole understanding of the human experience, it gives us the emotional strength to continually consider the world from varying perspectives.
5.) Love shall be the cornerstone to the practice of living with compassion.
So it seems like an overused word in our culture. We’ve heard the need to “love our neighbors as ourselves” for as long as most of us can remember, and yet we don’t ever seem to take that advice, to internalize the idea that if we approach each other and our environment(s) with love, we can’t go wrong. Even when situations seem insurmountable and that it would just be easier to blowup and lash out against those events and the people involved in them, the only thing that we can really control is our relationship to the events and people that happen in our lives. I can get attacked on the street, be beaten to within an inch of my life, and my initial reaction upon recovery will be to feel angry and scared. But that is not the only way that I can react to that event. I can change my relationship to those feelings, maybe not overnight, but with work and with time, I am in control of how I feel about anything that happens to me, for me, or around me. I can even control how I feel about things that happen to other people or to the natural landscape. I can’t control how other people react to something, but I can control how I feel about how they are reacting. Humans are often petty creatures astonishingly moving forward through time despite our tendency to act like monsters or to substitute reality with delusion. But that tendency toward being a less complex creature does not mean that we cannot work consistently toward overcoming our tendencies and to embrace a different version of ourselves. Practicing love is not always a success, but every time I go through the motions, the process becomes easier and the effects more lasting.
This list is not exhaustive. There are plenty of other value words that I think are important like dignity, compromise, passion, and diligence. Those words carry a lot of weight in how I assess the correctness of actions and policies but they are extensions of the Big 5 listed above. And here’s the rub: value statements aren’t always successful in shaping how I react to events or respond to stimulus. Life is a constant practice where I strive to be better than I was yesterday, as good as I can be today, and even better than that tomorrow. I must be kind to myself when I fail to embrace my values while also holding myself accountable to these values when I need to make decisions, especially big ones.