Two recent practices I’ve explored here, Monitoring and Equanimity, both talked about values. Values have also come to mind recently since the new year is fast approaching and it’s a natural time to think more closely about my values as I look back on the year that has been and forward to the year that is coming. I thought it would be interesting this week to explore my values as a sacred practice.
Whether we know it or not, we all have things we genuinely and deeply care about. These are the things that motivate us, give our life meaning, and make us ‘us’. These are our values. Sometimes they work on the surface of our experience; other times they work at such a deep level that they permeate our lives and decisions without our direct knowledge. Our values are our greatest motivators and greatest source of happiness. They can also, if we’re not careful, be a great source of unhappiness, especially when we aren’t aware of them or are distracted from them. Many of us live our day-to-day lives in this kind of trance state, caught up in our habits, routines, expectations, and responsibilities and cut off from our values.
There are a few signposts that can warn us that we’re living in such a trance state and should place renewed focus on our values:
- We can’t articulate what it is that we care about or what motivates us;
- We are “living a double life” or regret much of what our day involves;
- We spend our days avoiding what we don’t want to do more than doing what we want to do;
- Life feels meaningless and uninspired;
- We do what we think others would approve of us doing;
- Our values are unquestioned or inherited;
- Our desires are for things instead of what they mean;
- Our values are rigid.
Our values can also trip us up when two of our values are in conflict with each other. A classic example of this is the conflict between valuing time with family and valuing career success. While most of the time these would hopefully be aligned, at times they might conflict in ways that are difficult to resolve, for example when meeting a major work deadline butts up against attending a child’s recital or championship game. Being aware and able to articulate our values won’t prevent such values conflicts from happening; but it can help us to resolve them.
Another way our values can cause us difficulty is when they conflict with our legitimate needs, such as when a value to help others causes us to stop looking after our basic human needs for rest and, for many caregivers, even food and drink. (I know one person in a helping profession who takes it as a badge of honour when he’s had a day when he “didn’t have time” to use the washroom!). Similarly, someone who values connection to their family may run into problems when they reach a legitimate developmental need to express and differentiate themselves.
All of these situations call for an assessment or reassessment of values.
Why are values so important? The simplest answer is that they answer the “Why?” question for our goals, dreams, and actions. Values clarify what we want and so make decision-making simpler. As we saw last week, in a time of crisis, values can help to steady us and assist in maintaining our equanimity. They keep us on track, and help us to live up to our highest sense of purpose and calling. We often talk about ‘values alignment’, a state where we feel that everything is running smoothly, lined up properly — Not that anyone is perfect or their best self all the time: the goal isn’t perfection, but rather integrity, being as true as we can to ourselves and our beliefs.
Being a person of faith adds a further wrinkle to all this. Large faith traditions such as my own Christian tradition are big enough tents that they certainly don’t act as straight-jackets for our personal values, but they do provide certain context and content to our values and how they are lived out. For example, it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to value financial security and comfort, but if they are truly aligned with their faith (which warns against the love of money and that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God), their Christianity will inform how they go about acquiring and using their wealth. As a Christian, I feel it’s particularly important to examine how my personal values interact with the Sermon on the Mount and the Fruit of the Spirit.
What is it?
Try to begin the exercise with as few expectations as possible.
- On a sheet of paper or in a journal, write down your answers to the following questions:
⋅ What motivates you?
⋅ What angers you?
⋅ What were some of your peak experiences?
⋅ Imagine yourself at your best. What does this look like?
- Brainstorm. Find a list of potential values online (here is one such list) and sort them into three categories: Values you identify with, values you’re indifferent to, and things you definitely don’t value. Then, categorize and theme what you came up with.
- From the answers to the questions in step b and the categories you discovered in step c, create a list of the 4-7 values that jump out to you the most.
Put these side-by-side with a list of values that are important to you from your faith tradition. Where are obvious points of alignment between the two lists? Where are some potential points of contention? Where there may be conflict between your values and the values of your faith tradition, what are some ways you might be able to mitigate that conflict?
When I embarked on this week’s values practice, I was surprised to discover it had been close to three years since I had last assessed them. It was definitely time! In terms of how the practice was laid out, I appreciated having the two parts of the identification exercise. As much as I liked seeing the themes that emerged from the brainstorming, the questions picked up on things I would have missed from the brainstorming alone. For example, the first answer that came to mind to the question of what angers me was injustice; this highlighted for me that justice is more of a value for me than I would have guessed otherwise. Over all, unsurprisingly, the list of values that emerged this year was very similar to what I discovered in 2016, however with some slight shifts in nuance and colour. For example, this time around I decided I needed to qualify my value of growth with sustainability; and whereas in 2016, my value of love was more about my own sense of belonging, now it is coloured more by such qualities as empathy and justice.
The second half of the practice was also helpful, providing an alternative lens through which to view the values I identified as my core values.
I feel the need to start this reflection by asking the same question I’ve put to most of the practices that haven’t involved such things as prayer or scripture study: How is this a sacred practice? And indeed, the exercise of clarifying one’s values could be viewed more in terms of a secular coaching session than a sacred practice. But, as I’ve found throughout the year, so much of sacredness is about the intention and attention we give to something. For me at least, coming at this exercise with the lens of it being a sacred practice transformed it, expanding its horizons. It’s as though the centre of gravity of the practice shifted from being internal — Who am I? — but external and divine: Who am I created to be? The second way I think a practice like this is sacred is because knowing yourself is a radical act of truth telling. We can’t know how to get from point A to point B if we don’t know where point A and point B are. This practice, if undertaken honestly, can help us find our location, our goal, and therefore, be of vital assistance if finding the paths we need to take.
Coming at the exercise from the perspective of a sacred practice also helped to remind me that, as important as our individual values are in shaping our identities and goals in life, they (and we) are only one part of a very big picture. The world that the focus on values comes from — positive psychology and coaching — is often criticized by Christians as being inherently narcissistic. I don’t think this is a fair criticism of the discipline as a whole, but it is the trap that it can fall into when it isn’t careful. The larger context a faith tradition provides can be very helpful in reinforcing those walls around narcissism by demonstrating how our values might negatively impact others (what positive psychology refers to as values ‘ecology’), or how they might have unhealthy aspects we need to watch out for (‘shadow’).
While this values assessment practice this week didn’t provide many surprises for me, I was still grateful I took the time to reexamine what it is I care about most. But this is really just the first step. With the new year coming quickly, it’s time to look back and look ahead. Next week’s practice will dive into the discernment of desires; the week after that will be an end-of-year examen to see what areas of my life of faith need attention next year; and, after a week’s pause over Christmas, this series will conclude with sacred planning for the year ahead.