Psychology - The value of values
by Mrinalini Rao
Alice asked Cheshire Puss, “Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here.” “That depends a good deal on where you want to go,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
—Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
Most of our waking moments are spent in making choices—should I pursue my love for music on a full-time basis or should I continue with my gruelling routine in a multinational company? Should I get involved with a married man or continue to remain single? Should I spank my child to discipline him or should I just ignore his destructive actions? Many of our struggles and conflicts stem from a confusion regarding what we really want to do and what we think we should do. We either try and seek advice, talk about it with our near and dear ones, reason it out in our minds, ignore it until the matter comes to a boil or postpone action. And if we’ve still not taken a decision, we are left feeling powerless...
There is a desperate need to have a reference point, that offers a way out of our struggles, which has been built upon what we truly value and hold dearest to us. But first, let us understand why some of us shudder at the mention of values and virtues. The reference to values, behaviour or attitudes, though commonly found in religious scriptures, traces their source to pragmatic commonsense ethics—religious ethics merely confirm this! Neither the guru nor the terrorist likes to be hurt, cheated, lied to, or bullied. Sadly, values and attitudes have been reduced to a grid lock of do’s and don’ts imposed on society, which naturally makes conformity to them difficult.
The confusion over the usage of the word ‘values’, in the context of moral beliefs and attitudes, is not surprising, given the comparatively short period it has been used in that sense. In 1880s, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of values, not as a verb (meaning to ‘value or esteem’ something), but in a pluralistic sense of moral beliefs and social attitudes. Shortly after Nietzsche, sociologist Max Weber borrowed the word ‘values’ and used it matter-of-factly, which was absorbed unconsciously and without resistance into the vocabulary and ethos of modern society.
The new meaning of ‘values’ brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas are:
• Subjective and relative
• Mere custom and convention
• Peculiar to individuals and societies
Our problem then is largely one of language. The word ‘values’, in terms of moral beliefs and attitudes, has two distinctive meanings: personal preferences and objective principles/moral values as it is now known. Values can be either preferences or principles, which represent the opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Values that are preferences, whether it is for tea or coffee, for long hair or short hair, are personal choices that are subjective and liable to change. On the other hand, values that are principles, like honesty and compassion are consistent, universal, trans-cultural and objective. Values, that are preferences, are ‘to have and do’, but values that are principles are ‘to be.’ Inconsistency in practising principles, unlike preferences, may cause pain to you and others.
This may sound good in theory, but how will value-centred living help? If our living is not based on universal values, but on external factors (like power, fame, money, pleasure, etc.) then after a while it will lead to disillusionment and sadness. Value-centred living provides an internal guiding system to make the right choices based on universal principles, which are unchanging and applicable to all.
Value-centred living alone gives true self-confidence. Inner strength comes from a living based on fundamental values rather than from changing realities like money, house and business. Any change in them without consideration of the universal values causes one to be fearful and anxious. Think about moments of your life when you’ve stood by your values against all odds.
Value-centred living contributes to one’s integrity and wisdom. One starts to live proactively, objectively evaluating situations. One learns to open up one’s heart and reach out to other people focusing on the ‘larger good’. A fulfilling life is the effortless by-product of clearly identifying one’s values, their relationship with our actions and understanding the various patterns in our lives.
Let us take some time to reflect on what is truly important to us. Is it love, acceptance, money, moksha, compassion or honesty? Is it trust, fun, sex, pleasure, personal growth, art or justice? What kind of people do we truly enjoy interacting with? What kind of books will people generally find us reading? What do we think is an ideal day? What makes us the happiest? If today were our last day on earth, what would we be doing? These seemingly simple questions are a powerful indicator of our actions that stem from our much prized motivations and values. We find that when we truly do what resonates with our values, life is so much more fulfilling and authentic.
In modern society, the focus is on the external—on what is ‘out there’, rather than what is internal and intrinsic to the individual. Similar is the case with values which are wrongly perceived to be only external and hence to be taught. Dharma can only be preserved by one who lives dharma—nurtures, nourishes and upholds it.
No matter what our past has been, what circumstances guide the present, and what is to come in future, there are certain ‘pure’ and ‘true’ moments in our lives that direct us to an enduring part within ourselves. Take a journey into the past. Recall the moments where these identified values are personified in your life. There are definitely such moments as these—maybe few, maybe more.
Take Preeta, a 42-year-old media professional who was able to break out of a long-standing abusive relationship because she took some time to reflect and identify respect and commitment as an integral part of a relationship. Sunil, a 19-year-old street youth who witnessed his own courage in a near life-and-death situation, realised, “If I could handle that, then I can handle anything.” These values (as reflected in the passed moments) propose a path in life that is in tune with how each one defines himself/herself, and which will also define the futuristic path.
Poised at a moment of choice one will naturally be faced with tensions that push and pull from within. To stay committed is to choose the path that your values propose. It is a commitment to create a more real sense of the self—to enhance one’s true potential, that is no longer overwhelmed by choices and emotions, no more afraid of taking up life’s challenges. And if you stumble along the way, you can get up, smile and walk again!
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