“Values” is a word we hear quite frequently these days. In this context, it really has no meaning. It’s supposed to. It’s supposed to make us think of what is right and good. What is valuable. But what is valuable to one of us may not be valuable to another.
It’s a subjective thing, values. And yet the word is often used as if it has some universal meaning. Sometimes a descriptor is added — say, “traditional” values — and that gives it some meaning, but not nearly enough. Who’s tradition? From when?
Tradition, customs passed along through generations, often assigned authority based on some belief, the origin of which is often shaded in the murky mists of time. Or religion. Tradition often dictates what we do, what we say, and, almost always, what we believe.
“Traditional values”, then, relate very closely to “culture”, the ways in which we live. Cultures come and go. They merge, keeping parts of one and discarding parts of others. They blend. Some are lost, forgotten. Others are remembered only in textbooks and museums.
They change. They change because we change. Our knowledge changes. Our beliefs change. They change because we grow, we learn. How we see the world, and ourselves in it, changes.
We’ve done this for millennia. The change is often painful, frightening. That’s particularly true if our culture is based on seeing ourselves separately from our world. And that’s exactly where we are. When we see ourselves as separate, as individuals or as a group, we become fearful of the “others”, those of other races, other religions, other countries, other cities, other political persuasions, other identities, other ideas. Being caught in a culture of “either/or” — “good/bad”, “right/wrong”, we naturally label ourselves good and right and the “others” bad and wrong.
When we see our culture, our customs and traditions, as right and good and other customs and traditions as wrong and bad, we prejudice ourselves against them for the simple reason that they are not “us”. And this isn’t even limited to culture or tradition, or race or gender. We can and do separate ourselves because of happenstance of birth — rich or poor, sick or healthy, southern or northern. Anything will do. Anything to delineate the line between us and them.
But, like my feet in that photo wearing two different shoes, there is no us and them. There is only us. We may dress differently, speak differently, look differently, believe differently, but there is only us.
What are values? What do we value? What has value?
Can you even begin to answer any of those questions?
For some, it’s easy … or so it would seem. Values have to do with morality. We value tradition. Money has value. Values are the things most important in life. We value honesty. Friendship has value. Values are what’s good in the world. We value good. Goodness has value.
We are all good. Each and every one of us. We cannot be bad, or evil, or wrong. Only good. Good is what is, the state of everything before we obscure it with obstructing notions that we likely didn’t come to on our own, or, if we did, it was so long ago as to hardly be relevant today.
We can — and often — do misguided things, hurtful things, even horrible things. We do these things because we lack compassion, and sometimes because we think we are compassionate, that we see “the greater good”.
We do harmful things, not because we’re bad people, or because we’ve been possessed by evil, but because we’re confused. And we may not even be aware of the confusion.
Clearing up the confusion is something we can only do for ourselves. Each of us has our own particular ways of clouding the waters, although the methods we use are often drawn from the same well. We differ only in the combinations of methods we use, which ones we emphasize and which ones we rely on less often.
We can’t expect others to apply what we have learned for ourselves to their own situations for the very simple reason that their situations are different from ours. But they’re not so different that we can’t learn from one another. And we learn best from each other by … being what we are beneath all the confusion.
We’ve confused ourselves for a very long time, largely out of fear. Fear and desire. We want something, we concoct a way to get it. We may be afraid we won’t get it, or, once we have it, we become afraid we’ll lose it. We scheme some more. We lose sight of why we wanted this thing in the first place, and once we have it, anyway, we likely find it’s not enough, it’s not THE thing. There’s something else.
At some point, we may decide that things aren’t the thing at all. Maybe we turn to love. Or spirituality. But those, too, can become “things” to be desired, to achieve, to hold, and to fear their loss or unattainability.
In the Torah, the first man and first woman wanted to be like the gods, to know the difference between good and evil, as only the gods can know. That’s why they took the advice of the talking snake and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, forsaking the Tree of Life. But rather than gaining that wisdom, they instead became fearful. They were tossed unceremoniously out of the garden where they’d lived, the garden where all things were good, where all things were simply as they are.
They were tossed out into another world, carrying with them the knowledge of good and evil but lacking the maturity to know what that really meant. They had deluded themselves, and we humans have been deluded ever since.