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Values: What they aren’t
The word values gets tossed around a lot these days. But it’s actually pretty rare that we’ve spent the time and the work to articulate are own personal values. I’d always thought I knew what my values were, but I didn’t. What I had weren’t values, they were associations. Associations are something totally different than values. And that’s a problem, because if we really want to live an authentic, whole life we need to know our values. We need to know that the decisions we make are actually coming from the root of our values, not from habit, tradition, or because it’s the popular thing at the time. When we conflate our associations with our values we lose that ability.
When we talk about “values voters” or we talk about “family values” we are rarely actually referring to a value. We’re instead referring to an issue, and usually responding to that issue in the way our associations respond, so our church or our political affiliation. This matters because most issues are actually very complicated and often different and competing values play into various positions on those issues. When we simply follow the crowd we reduce complicated issues, and our own complicated value system to simple black and white. The absolute extreme of that sort of behavior is a cult or fringe group. Two things you should generally avoid.
A familiar tale
So let’s start with a story that will help articulate the difference between values and associations and why they matter. I grew up thinking I knew my values, they were the same as my parents when I was a child. When I became a young adult I assumed I knew what my values were because I was a Republican (like my parents before me, and their parents before them). Most Americans would probably have a similar answer if you asked them about their values. They might talk about their religion, or their political party. Because that is how we’ve generally been trained to think about values. But then two things happened, first I started to actually question and dig deeply into my faith tradition and sacred texts; and second, I took a class in college on critical thinking in which we were actually taught to articulate values.
And I discovered a few things. First off I discovered that much of what I’d been taught about my faith didn’t actually hold up to a careful and educated reading of our sacred stories. Second, that the values I held most dear didn’t actually line up with the group positions I had supported. It turned out my values were more important to me than agreeing with a group of people.
These days I generally vote for Democratic candidates, and I’m an Episcopal priest but neither of those things defines my values. Both of those associations were made because of my values. That’s the correct way round. Those two groups I’ve named most often align with the values I hold most dear. Not always, but often. And where they don’t, I know how to speak out and work for change I see as necessary.
What are Values?
So what are values? Values are a whole lot simpler, and far more complicated than we might think. First of all, values are not issues. Your values are not that you are for or against legal abortions. Your stance on the legalization of abortions is a position that is a result of your values (hopefully). The values that lead people to chose one position or another on an issue are often diverse and complicated. Values are sort of like ethical atoms. They’re the smallest, or most basic unit that makes up your ethical framework. (Yes, I know that atoms are no longer the smallest thing we know about.)
Being Republican or Democrat is also not a value, that’s an association. Being Christian, Buddhist, or an atheist is also not a value, it’s an association. Associations are groups of people who share some things in common, and usually work together toward a shared goal. The variety of issues and causes an association group might support is staggering. And while being a part of a group is healthy, what isn’t healthy is to have not examined ones values first. Because the likelihood is your values don’t match 100% with the values of any group. If you haven’t examined your values, however, you’ll often find yourself in the awkward position of going along with the “party line” on something or other while feeling really uncomfortable, and not knowing why.
So what are values? Values are the basic fundamentals that you value most highly. They are central to your character. They are your bedrock principles. Tax policy is not a value. Generosity is. Generosity is the sort of basic human value that might or might not be of utmost importance to you. Other examples are hospitality, forgiveness, hope, honesty, equity, or hospitality. Most of us have a set of values that are most sacred and integral to our being. They are the things around which we consciously, or unconsciously make our best decisions.
Understanding your values, apart of individual issues or groups, is an important step in making decisions for your life that are healthy and authentic. And it’s an important safety measure against group think. If you know as an absolute rock bottom principle that honesty and generosity are part of who you are then you aren’t likely to get dragged into a shady scheme to exploit elderly customers. If know your values you are much more likely to realize when your political party has gone straight off the rails (and not go down with the ship). Values matter.
Values Audit: Short and Sweet
If you enter “values assessment” in Google you’ll get a number of tools, from the complicated and to the simple for doing this. We’re going to use a simple method that you can do it right now in about three minutes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use other tools as well. Using multiple tools and comparing the results can turn up some really accurate trends. It adds some double checking that can add accuracy to the process. But such a fine detail isn’t really needed to get started. If you have a spouse, children, or other family members try having them do the same exercise, see where your values overlap and differ. Talk about it!
For this you’ll need somewhere to make a list. That could be your phone, a piece of paper, or anything else that works for you. I prefer paper because the act of writing things down and physically circling things or highlighting them really helps reinforce them for me. But there’s no right way to do this.
I have prepared a PDF with a list of values and short explanations for each one. Feel free to download it and print it out if you like, that’s my preferred way to do this. Or you can preview the PDF online and do the following exercise on a separate sheet of paper. Be sure you have something to write with, and paper to write on, that’s all you need to get started.
The goal of this exercise is to come up with your most important values, those that are most foundational for you and your life, your important values, and your supporting values. You will be reading through a list of values, not issues or groups. Each is defined in a short simple manner. I suggest that to start you go with your first instincts. If you put too much time and thought into an exercise like this you can find yourself skewing the results (even subconsciously). If doing this with other people do not share your results until everyone is completely finished.
You can find the PDF here.
- Scan through the list of values. Chose the ten that most resonate with you. Circle, highlight, or write them down separately. Order doesn’t matter, just chose ten and note them somehow.
- Now, take a look at your list of ten and make that list five. Just five values that are most important to you.
- Got that? OK, it’s about to get harder, make it three.
- And now, finally, make it two.
Was that hard, or easy? Were you surprised by the things that topped the list? What about the things that you cut, were there any you really, really wanted to hold onto. If you’ve got time to jot down some notes or reflect on this process now go ahead and do it. Either way, keep your list!
Values Based Living
So what now? Well keep your list handy, put it in your journal (I’d put all the lists in your journal because it will come in handy in the future). Next we’ll do a life audit, a way of figuring out what exactly is happening in your life, where all your energy is going. And once we have today’s list and that life audit we’ll have all the tools for you to really make some intentional decisions about life. Doing this is called “values based living.” Basically it’s about aligning the way we live our lives with the stuff we actually value. It’s all about intentionality and authenticity.
It isn’t necessarily hard but it requires us to be aware of things that often are subconcous for modern people. The values we hold, the ways we spend our time and energy, and that we actually do have choices that can make those two things align in a way that makes our lives whole and meaningful. Come back next week for the next step in this process.