A couple of years ago I attended a workshop during which we participants were asked to choose, from a list literally hundreds long, our top ten values. After doing this, we were then asked to prioritize our final answers. I was frustrated and overwhelmed by this exercise, feeling like there was no way I could possibly do it justice in the allotted time we were given. I also wondered afterwards: even if I worked on this long enough to get to a point where I was relatively satisfied with my answers, how accurate would they really be? How would I be able to make the distinction, in other words, between my purported values and my actual values? I may claim to value one thing more than another (say, “courage” far above “security” or “comfort”), but what if my day-to-day behavior, viewed unflinchingly, reflected otherwise?
I came to the conclusion that we are always living our values – our actual ones – whether or not we like them, are willing to accept the truth of them, or are even fully aware of them. For instance, if we claim to value our connection with others above all else, but we spend five times as many hours watching TV (alone) as we do hanging out with friends, there may be a disconnect there. Maybe, in such an example, we actually value being entertained and/or distracted above building meaningful relationships. It would seem to me that a rigorous, objective assessment of how we actually spend our time, energy, and dollars (were such a report readily obtainable) would give us a more accurate depiction of our values than simply creating a list of what we believe them to be.
Really taking in what our actual values are, I imagine, would be disillusioning for all of us to one degree or another. We might find an impartial report of them to be anywhere from mildly disappointing to deeply unsettling! On the other hand, we might be pleased to learn that we have been more successful in some arenas than we may have been able to acknowledge or give ourselves credit for. But the indisputable truth of what we value, whatever those things are and in whatever order of importance, would be right there in front of our eyes.
Values vs. Ideals
What we would like our values to be, were we to compile a prioritized list, are actually our ideals.
And so, though it may sound like mere semantics, I am suggesting here that there is a difference. Our values are simply a reflection of what our choices indicate is really important to us at any given point in time. As Steve Pavlina, the workshop facilitator, reminded us: we can elect to change our values at any time, and we often do. Our ideals, on the other hand, are those values to which we aspire. If we would like to be more generous, more courageous, more connected to others, more adventurous, more open-minded, more trusting, more creative, or more anything than we currently are, then these amount to our ideals. The good news is we can make new choices to consciously bridge the gap between our values and our ideals, until the latter become more integrated into the former.
While I do believe that most of us* are always living our values, I also believe that none of us are always living fully in accordance with our ideals. Since our ideals are (by my distinction, anyhow) aspirational in nature, this means they are things toward which we are striving.
It is possible, though, that we can be living in full accordance with yesterday’s ideals, which we may have successfully merged into today’s values (see my last post, From Omnivore to Herbivore in…Fifteen Years? for an example of this). Like our values, our ideals are subject to change or modification at any time. This means that we never “arrive” as fully integrated, completely and perfectly actualized beings with no room for growth (thank goodness for that!). Rather, the human journey, as I see it, is a constantly changing experience during which we have the opportunity to grow in any number of different ways. And the best that any of us can do is work towards living with greater and greater integrity – that is, closer and closer to our ideals – given the current state of affairs with our health, energy, knowledge, awareness, understanding, resources, access to resources, environment, etc.
After We Are Gone…
After we are gone, others will remember us not for our purported values (our ideals), but for the actual values we exemplified in all of the big and little decisions we made and the ways in which we lived our lives, consciously chosen or not.
So…given that you can’t help but live them, what are your values…at least at this moment in time?
* I have to allow for exceptions here, such as those with limited control over their behavior for any number of reasons, including certain neurological, physiological, or psychological disorders.