If someone asked you to name your most important values, what would they be? Think quickly now, respond by instinct, because the more you think about it, the more complicated it gets, or so I found at least. My blog friend and wonderful novelist, Lilian Nattel, wrote about a recent social experiment, in which female students in a university physics class were asked to write for fifteen minutes about their values, anything that really mattered to them. Having done this, the students then performed much better in their tests, closing the gender gap in a traditionally male-dominated subject. I found this to be very intriguing, particularly in the light of my current work. Affirming our personal values turns out to be a grounding exercise, I suspect, something that clears away the mists of confusion that arise when we are trying, with whatever good intentions, to bend ourselves out of shape in order to fit some fantasy of other people’s desires. Lilian and I both decided we’d write about our own values, and see what transpired.
The first thing I found was that it was all too easy; values tumbled out of me and I had a hard time keeping up with them for long enough to figure out why they mattered. I had to laugh at the superabundance of virtuous material I ended up with; it may well be that we are supposed to have left grand narratives behind, but in my personal universe, it turns out that perfecting ourselves, making the very best of what we have, is absolutely central to my life philosophy. I have all kinds of standards for myself (and, on the quiet, for others), but I also noticed that in recent years my methods and strategies have changed. It used to all be about striving and ambition, and now it’s about letting things unfold and attentiveness to what’s immediately around. I can promise you that this is a big improvement on the striving.
I value creativity, thoughtfulness, quiet contemplation. I value practice and persistence, tenacity, resilience, and patience (although I don’t have much of it).
I think it’s better to do less, but to produce quality, better to be proud of what you have done, than proud of your ability to get it done. And whilst I think work is where we can often find our most uncomplicated pleasures and the greatest sense of self-worth, I also think it’s the place where we most need perspective. No one’s bleeding. No one’s indispensable. There will always be work that needs doing, and a tomorrow to try again.
I value loyalty, and being given the benefit of the doubt. I value being looked out for, far more than I value being looked after. It matters to me to have someone see it all from my side, not least because I realize how very difficult this is to do without one’s own responses and preoccupations interfering. It’s an act of genuine love to embrace the other person’s perspective, and a wholly necessary one. I believe that people are fundamentally good, but that all kinds of trouble begins when they are not seen and valued exactly for themselves, not for what they could be, not for what they achieve, but for who they are.
And so I value sympathy, compassion, kindness, understanding. The greatest gift is just to be there, attentive, for the other person; love is presence.
I value reason over passion. Passion is easy, it’s just letting go. Far harder to exert reason and restraint and self-control. I value common sense, and being sensible.
I value simplicity, and the beauty in the ordinary and the everyday.
I value freedom, free will, spaciousness. Now I have wide margins to my day, I know how hard it would be to live without them.
I value humour, insight, honesty, openness. We cannot prevent our true selves from finding ways to communicate – no matter how we attempt to hide or dissimulate, the real feelings will seep out, in other forms, in other places. Feelings of anger or distress that we don’t think may be expressed only piggyback onto feelings of irritation and sadness that we feel are justified, making them excessive, disproportionate, often confusing and sometimes hurtful to others. So I think it’s essential to find a way to give voice to one’s inner violence, to treat it with acceptance, wry humour and some respect, before it comes out in ways over which we have no control.
And here endeth the sermon from Mount Litlove. This is a good exercise, a kind of spiritual detox. I recommend it in the bleak midwinter, as a way of seeing the basic landscape of the soul, its roots and branches and rocky contours.