The amount of time we spend focused on matters outside of our value system is staggering, when you think about it.
I spent too long away from writing, and now what pours out is a diatribe on values and philosophy. But storms have been blowing, weather has been changing, the rental house needed repairs, and the Salmon Beach rowboat was moved to the shop (hence the photo), all of which has meant less time in the pool and working toward next spring’s open water swim. But I did go wading up to my navel to remove a stump from behind my parents’ house, and the water was not nearly as cold as I anticipated. Thanks, Wim Hof!
Sipping coffee on the drive to work the other day I finished the audiobook of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson and thought about the value systems underpinning my life. So much of it is subconscious that I am sure I could spend many days peeling back the layers, but suffice it to say that the self examination was not without a healthy dose of embarrassment, blushing, and verbal justifications. And I was alone in the car. Cue the sound of coins dropping into the therapy piggy bank.
Essentially I concluded that I outwardly act like a selfish man-boy with a finely honed sense of entitlement and an intense need for the people in my life to love me. That is a tough combination, since a) I am almost 45, a father, and a partner to a pretty amazing woman- not a lot of extra room for childishness here, b) feeling entitled to anything without sacrificing for it is a recipe for disaster, and c) being universally loved is impossible and just a wee bit shallow. And yet when I think of the values I consciously hold onto they run counter to many of the actions that make me appear this way. So what gives? I either have a set of unconscious values that operate at a much deeper level, or there is a level of commitment I lack when faced with the discomfort of sticking to what I believe is right. Even as I write this I can tell that it is the latter.
Which brings me to my next thought on this topic. I have a few close friends, which seems at this time in our culture to actually be pretty amazing, but I have not felt a part of a tribe in several years. What I mean is that I do not feel a part of a group, outside my family, which holds me to a certain level of accountability for living my ideals. That sounds a bit like passing the personal responsibility buck along to others, but bear with me.
As an actor I was always aware of being a member of a tribe- of gypsies, to be sure. Commitments to productions and each other always had an ending date (closing night) and you are always meeting new members of this tribe, spending a short yet intense time together, then passing out of contact for months or years at a time. But we all understood that we were all engaged in something bigger than ourselves and that everyone was expected to put their time and energy into this other thing. And to me that is the definition of tribe. As an EMT I was aware of the same feeling, but never achieved insider status. And as a teacher it is strangely the opposite- it feels like time and energy put into something which connects only tangentially with my peers, certainly not a shared endeavor and without a sense of collective responsibility.
Now, one of my many favorite movies is Ghost Dog with Forest Whitaker. But the lone wolf method isn’t one I have ever subscribed to. I have always been my best self when part of a group, a community, a tribe. But how does one stand by principals and values when it is only one’s self that is holding you accountable?
Which brings me back to the first sentence. When we are able to engage in a way of life that requires us to revisit our core values frequently, we strengthen those values. If we are unable to do so they atrophy or they change. They do so by shifting to fit more comfortably with what we are spending the bulk of our time thinking about. If you spend your time thinking about what assholes your coworkers are (mine aren’t, just saying) your values will shift until you believe that people at work should behave in ways that don’t aggravate you. Your underlying belief will change to support your feelings that they are jerks, and that their jerkiness is something that happens to you. Our thoughts are certainly capable of subverting our values and our beliefs, in order bolster and support the thoughts and emotions you dwell on most frequently. Left to its own devices the mind will almost always opt for the path of least resistance.
However, if you have a group of people (again, not family- too many conflicts of interest) willing to tell you to knock it off, get out of your head, get over your precious self, and do the work you are there to do? Then those values get the chance to be perfected through practice, burnished through repeated use, and strengthened through repeated bruisings, like any other muscle.