Spring is unfolding. Our days are beginning to fill with light, and we can step outside without worrying about coats, boots, salt, and snow. It’s the season of renewal, of emergence, of growth. In the spirit of that, I have been contemplating what’s important to me, and what I want to bring forward through the rest of the year. (Should I have done this around New Year’s? Maybe. But it was so cold, and I had a new dog, and…really, who cares?).
The first thing you should know is that I believe very strongly in the goodness of people, and the potential for us to make the world a better place. I believe this despite a lot of evidence that people can do evil things, that everything has a cost, that our societies are deeply, deeply flawed, and that life is flat-out unfair. As someone who is not religious, this is as close as I come to faith.
It’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize that not everyone has the same vision for the world. I have been really upset sometimes at behavior that goes so far outside anything I would ever do that the other person seems like an alien from outer space. I can’t control how others act, but I can reflect on those instances and figure out what matters to me, and how I want to behave in the world.
Here are some of the things I value at present, and why they are important to me:
Empathy. The ability to viscerally understand what others are feeling, positive or negative. I feel it is very important to be able to listen to others, to understand them, and to connect with them on an emotional level. I don’t think we can make a better world together without this skill. If we are constantly seeing groups of people as “other” we’re not going to stop perpetuating injustice or creating unfair systems. I flat out don’t trust people who don’t seem to have the ability to empathize with others, because it means the only person who’s real to them is themselves, and that scares me.
Respect. Respect primarily means admiration of someone’s accomplishments, but I mean it in the sense of a regard for others. It’s harder to empathize with someone you don’t know than your best friend, and it’s not always appropriate to say “I feel you” to a complete stranger. If we all treated each other with respect, it would mean at least acknowledging that everyone is their own person, and that they all have their own stuff going on that we don’t know about, and that there’s no reason to treat someone badly from minute one. A world where we practice respect is, I hope, a world where stereotypes don’t have such a stranglehold on people’s minds. Where people are considerate and polite to people who haven’t done anything to lose that respect. In my daily life, I try to treat everyone with respect because (golden rule!) I want them to treat me fairly as well.
Self-respect. I almost lumped this in with the previous item, but as many of you know, it is challenging in a completely different way. The other two values I’ve described are very outward-focused. It’s easy, especially for those of us who were socialized as girls to want to be good and polite and kind and so on, to lose ourselves in paying attention to others. I have struggled with this on and off for years. I’ve taken humility to an extreme and placed others’ opinions and desires above my own even in circumstances where they were wrong or their wishes conflicted with mine. I’ve blamed myself for situations that at best were the result of a lot of people’s mistakes and at worst were completely out of my control from the start. I am getting better at listening to myself just as I try to listen to others, but I definitely struggle with this one.
Truth. I know this conflicts with some of the items above. If everyone has their own point of view and experiences, what is truth? If someone is wrong, but you want to treat them respectfully, do you correct them? This is why being a human is so hard sometimes! It’s a constant balancing act. But yes – truth matters to me. I’m personally terrible at lying, and I very much don’t appreciate being lied to, so this one’s kind of a freebie. I think being honest with the people I care about is one of the foundations of strong relationships. I don’t mean just saying everything without any kind of filter at all (although I do tend to babble when I’m at home). I’m talking more about the big stuff – hopes, fears, plans, mistakes, etc. Complimenting someone when I mean it, and offering criticism (nicely) when asked. Admitting when I was wrong, or when I don’t know something. On a broader scale, I believe in the scientific process: that rigorous research can show us more about the world, that flimsy research should be examined and questioned, and that we should be willing to change what we understand to be true if new facts come to light.
Effort. If you can’t tell already, working toward positive change is at the core of my world view. There’s something to be said for enjoying the moment and being present for your life. It’s another thing I’m working on doing more of! But I want to guard against complacency. If I don’t keep trying to improve myself, if we all don’t make an effort to make our society better, even in tiny ways, what are we doing here? I know there are people who are working their butts off just trying to take care of themselves and their families, and that’s okay. That’s enough. Sometimes it’s all we can do to handle our own stuff, and we don’t have the capacity to do more than tread water. But for those of us with enough power, money, time, or skills to do more, I believe that we should make that effort, even if it isn’t easy.
These are some grandiose ideals, and in my real life I don’t live up to them. I can be thoughtless, tired, rude, or intolerant. There are days when I don’t take care of myself, and other days when I’m lazy (are these occasionally the same day? Absolutely). Sometimes I let my worries about what’s appropriate or respectful get in the way of honesty or my own needs. There is work I could be doing, sacrifices I could make, for the benefit of others. I’m not doing that work. There are other things I could have accomplished if I’d prioritized myself above anyone else. I’ve made different choices, and traveled a different path. But I find value in thinking about these things I find important, and in trying to practice them when I can.
What do you hold dear, and how does it shape you? Is your vision different from mine? What do you struggle with, and what have you achieved? I’d love to hear what you have to say.
Use the Exploring Me Worksheet to help you figure out whether you’re on the path you set or one society set for you. Help define the personal morals and values to clarify the direction on the person you want to be.