Starting from a deficit is always frustrating because after all the work done and resources used to get oneself to the surface, you often find yourself exhausted by the journey. Further, deficit thinking has us defining ourselves from the perspective of where we’re going, not where we’ve come from, it can feel that no movement has occurred at all! Unfortunately this mentality is exactly what we bring to ‘goal setting’ and it’s precisely why the spiral of shame and self-doubt is so often the end result. Thankfully we can give up goals by instead looking at achievement. The way to do this is to reframe our behavior within a consideration of Values.
Values are not Behavior
Values are not synonymous with, or at least not fully understood or fulfilled by, particular behaviors. This may at first sound obvious, but it’s not typically how we assess and judge ourselves and one another. When was the last time you chastised yourself for not going to the gym and instead binging a tv show? When was the last time you judged another as being dishonest based on a particular situation? For that matter, when was the last time you felt yourself unfairly judged when you went with being supportive rather than being honest? Or, how easy is it to think of a time when you gave up on supporting one Value, like Honesty, for the purpose of saving someone’s life, job or prevent being hurt?
All of these scenarios bring us to three conclusions:
Values never go away
Sometimes in supporting one Value in a particular way, it may mean not supporting another in a way we’d otherwise do
Context often drives what Value(s) we’re focused on
Consider the difficulty of judgment, both of others and ourselves. Often it happens where one family member will declare you don’t love them because you don’t treat them exactly the same way as another. The accusation is often met with stunned frustration because of course you love them, it’s simply that you interact differently due to the nature of the particular connection, the context in which a behavior occurred and what the other person’s interests may be. A more obvious example would be if one of your kids declared you didn’t love them because you don’t treat them the exact same way as your spouse. Clearly the claim is absurd, the very nature of the connection leads to different behavior. Importantly, the Value itself never went away.
Life is a constant juggling act of supporting what we care about, utilizing the behavior we’ve learned to associate with particular Values and doing so within contexts of which we often have no control over the particulars. Consider self-esteem or integrity, where ‘standing up for yourself’ is a common advice given. Yet, when faced with a hostile work environment or unhealthy personal relationship we won’t follow the advice, instead opting for another behavior. Where we often then shame ourselves, the reality is we did act to support a Value, but instead of Integrity, we acted on Financial Security, Safety, Peace, etc. What we’re concerned with here is not a judgment about long-term consequences, but a proper evaluation about why we do what we do in any given moment.
Those moments are context-driven. We are not likely going to be able to focus on Health when we’re incessantly surrounded by junk food and find it difficult to gain access to healthier alternatives. It’s little wonder in that context that Pleasure takes center-stage. We’re not likely to work on Self-Esteem/Image when coming out of an emotionally abusive family, surrounded by unsupportive community and/or lacking in skills that our specific society finds useful. I say “likely” here because there’s always personal stories of people seeing their way through adversity; this is about the general experience. In fact, behind every story of success despite adversity you’ll find that the person did the one thing we’re about to bring attention to: expanding perspective.
Daily Valued Living
Rather than goals, let’s consider what we’re already doing in our lives that is helpful and expand on that. Rather than getting caught up in a hyper-focus on one behavior, let’s consider how we’re always seeking to support what we care about.
Identify an area of your life you’d typically set a goal based on lack or self-denial
What Value is associated with that area?
Select 2-5 other Values that come to mind, or are associated with, that initial Value.
What are healthy behaviors to support that Value?
Consider how others are supporting those same Values and how you may bring such behavior completely or in part, to your own life.
Each step is about starting from your humanity, at the center of which is what you care about, and building upon what already exists. From that foundation you can increase your confidence in what is behaviorally possible by enlarging your competence in how you support what matters to you. Noticing what you’re already doing is exactly the opposite of getting lost in the contemplation of what you’re not. The latter is an ever-expanding sinkhole and we know where it sends us: nowhere.
By promoting to ourselves the daily ways we support our Values, we remind ourselves that we are constantly in service to them. By expanding what is possible through noticing how others support our shared Values we build a greater repertoire of behavioral tools to work through the struggles that inevitably come up. Isn’t that what we’re all ultimately interested in anyway?
We often create stories to address one problem, only to have it take on a life of its own. More difficult is when such a story is religion and the tendency towards absolutism is a strong psychological pull. Jung’s “The Undiscovered Self” helps us see where when dealing with fanaticism we may unwittingly pull similar tendencies from within ourselves.
Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
Popular sayings and cliches abound. Songs are written as odes to and diatribes against. Lives are made and destroyed in its embrace. The forms it takes are at the center of social debate and religious theological musings. The nature of love guides, shapes, cajoles and inspires a host of behavior. Yet rarely does any of it bring us closer to an understanding of just what it is. Like referring to sleep as that thing we do when we’re not awake, noting the behavior inspired by love gives us much to discuss, but seeing any commonality is a bit more difficult.
What makes the situation even more compellingly frustrating is there exists no commonly understood definition of emotion either. With this in mind we can turn to a discussion of emotion by Daniel Siegel as it relates to attachment in his book The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. For Siegel, emotion serves the purpose of linking differentiated, or separated, parts. As in psychology with the linking of child to caregiver, or the sociological linking of individual to group, emotion is the process of binding these disparate and differentiated parts into a coherent whole. How this is applied to love as a particular manifestation of emotional energy is where we turn to next.
Love Binds What Is Thought Separate
When we love we are not simply noting the casting outward of a feeling but acknowledging a recognition of union amongst differentiation. What love is, is a counter to disillusionment, the opposite of dissociation, the cure to ennui and it knows only expansion. When we see union as the fundamental ground of our being-ness, love provides a space for certain behavior to emerge from it. Life-giving and respectful, cherishing that which helps life expand and progress. Differences become variations of unity rather than held up to show separation. When loving another it is within this unity, a conscious recognition of an interconnected existence. We celebrate in all their nuances the person in front of us just as we celebrate those around us and she or he who stares back in a mirror.
I have loved many people, just as I am quite certain those reading this have loved many as well. I love my family, I love my friends and lover, those who are no longer in my life and those who are merely tangentially connected to it. I love the song I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz and how when the subject of the song is shifted from a singular person in front of you to humanity as a whole there is only an expansion of meaning rather than confusion, a quickening desire to not give up even as the skies get rough, to make a difference and not to break or burn, learning to bend and acknowledge who each of us is and what each of us isn’t and who I am even in the midst of it all.
All of this, all of these manifestations of love are encapsulated within a singular term and yet at no time is there a flatland of feeling, a singularity to how such a feeling of love is to be felt. There is instead an allowance for gradations, for nuance and depth. Love is joyful exuberance within the process of this celebration, bound with the threads of our relational reality. We hold that space and by doing so find that love brings peace, a commitment to growing understanding and an expansion of life’s expression.
Being lost is not seeing the paths all around because of looking for the ‘right’ one. We encourage freedom of imagination in our kids because we want them to not get locked into bad habits. We entreat each other to think outside the box when confronted with adversity and seemingly insurmountable struggles. Corporations hire coaches and gurus to help make the stagnant, movable again. Our very existence as a species is due to the variations possible within the seeming limitations of genetics. Life changes, expands and manifests in new ways precisely because it is not caught in a singular way of being.
As in life, so then in each and every human being. Living is ever-expansive because our potential is not limited by any single identity or story of who we are. Being trapped, stagnant, and confined is what occurs when we get locked into a narrow way of visioning who we are and therefore what we are capable of achieving. This is true of ourselves and, given the interconnectedness of relational reality, of those we look upon.
A Restricted Vision
Sin, within the framework of conservative fundamentalist religious traditions, is a way of framing humanity within a restricted vision. It is a declaration that the wholeness of humanity is found within a story of depraved, immoral and inherently self-serving boundaries. It removes intent and will, replacing it with an assumed knowledge of what lies beneath or at the core of a person. Behavior ceases to be a window into the multiplicity of human rationale, of the varied reasons, thoughts and stories of justification, and becomes an empty expanse unworthy of exploration. Why did the person do what they did? Well, we can look at what they say, but really it’s this thing called sin, the insurmountable evil at the heart of humanity.
The problem of sin is not simply that it’s a false idea, but that it separates us from looking at our potential. Our varied lives of layered thought and emotion become lies and obfuscations hiding us from our ‘true selves.’ This process of singular-visioning inexorably leads to shame and doubt, shame of who we are and doubt about our capacity for change and growth. Unfortunately this process is not limited to the notion of sin, it occurs any time we select a rationale for our behavior, separate it from the interactional and reciprocal reality of our relational lives, and make it the unalterable core of who we are.
How often have any of us faced failure and in the midst of defeat, callously declared “I’m just a loser” or “this is just who I am” or “I’m only ever going to be this way”? We may not be thinking of sin, but we are most certainly embarking on a similar path of limitation. Similarly, when we break someone else’s behavior down to a singular reason, we are artificially limiting our understanding of their humanity.
By selecting merely one potential rationale for our decision-making, we have cut ourselves off from the complexity that is our story-making, the formation of our identities. Instead of the multiple interconnected layers of a full life, we are crushed beneath the weight of simplicity and the desire to forge a clear direction forward. This process is not concerned with health, well-being or truth; it is a means of razing the trees to the ground to save the perceived forest.
Every one of us makes decisions based on a variety of factors, explicit and implicit, historical and future-projected, conscious and unconscious. Further, none of us are immune to prejudice, bias, appeal to authority and the myriad of other emotive-logical cognitive failings. To be called out for one stone out of place and have the whole of our identity-structures or personal narratives defined by it is to place the need for righteous judgment above and beyond that of humanistic understanding.
The determination of right and wrong does not occur starting from the assumed superiority of a singular position. This is where culture wars and the relationship fights we later feel ashamed for having gotten into, begin from. An understanding of ourselves and others begins where morality does, within the relational network that is our humanity. Individual actions can still be judged, but they need not overshadow the whole of that person, nor should they become the main or only lens through which we see ourselves and one another.We do not walk the path of understanding those around us if we begin and end with what we disagree with. Separation only furthers itself, it does not rejoin what was sundered.
Growth along the scale of human progress is a waltz between what we believe ourselves capable of being and the depth and quality of the relationships we live our lives through, it is not a sprint to a pre-determined goal. Dwelling in the space of potential means identifying the infliction of pain and move to reduce it by stretching the bounds of our empathy through touching the strands that bind us together.
Divine love seems inexplicably tied to divine judgment at times. With even a cursory search online the subsequent finding of so many articles and images depicting people of otherwise benign feelings supporting hatred and irrational judgment, the only seeming constant in a species devoted to exhibiting the divine in their lives is divisiveness and cruelty. There is assuredly much to be questioned in how this happens. As a former adherent to a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity, I can with rueful head-shaking recall many a moment of self-righteous judgment and resultant hurt feelings, even among those I would have called my spiritual brothers and sisters. As I began to fervently question the ideological grounds for my thinking I rarely had to pause for long to be reminded why the search for another answer needed to continue.
The divine or, if the desire is to be more personal, a god, seems most often to possess a sense of transcendence, a broad interconnection between various other characteristics. There is always both a connection to one or more human qualities and then the concept of god is placed in a space above or beyond these connections. At once it is immediate and far away. Much the same occurs when we consider concepts like “patriotism” and “joy,” where there are certainly behaviors associated, they never quite encompass the whole of the feeling.
The ability to collect disparate data and then feel a sense of the transcendent linking them altogether is likely just how our brains organize experience. Putting together the vast amount of information provided by experience, the brain creates a seamless reality often even if it needs to make things up. Our sight, for instance, is not nearly as comprehensive as we like to think, focused primarily on identifying movement (likely from our evolutionary predator-prey history) and funneled through only a small section of the overall eye. The image that we “see” is largely a creation of the brain, built from the constant movements of the eye taking in data, with focus on any changes that are noticed. Anyone who has been startled by finally seeing someone who’s been standing right beside them for a length of time is well aware that sight is not all-encompassing.
Our brains create images that are broader than the data we are taking in, weaving together threads into a whole. That this whole means we miss some things that are there and add other things that aren’t is the stuff of memory research, where people have been known to utterly ignore a person in a monkey-suit or add false details to someone observed during a heavily charged emotional experience. A personal narrative, possessing the quality of transcendence, seems foundational to human experience.
Everything from skyscrapers to iPads, social organizations and the places we call home, is a creation out of transcendent intent, a form cobbled together out of pieces of information, often only initially considered in the imagination. I am reminded of people who lament how cell-phones have created distance within families, but during natural catastrophes the Red Cross raises millions from small donations through texts. We growl at the person talking loudly on their phone in a restaurant and yet rush to it when wanting to make sure a loved one is safe. Every form, while still retaining the potential of its original intent, possesses a space for the filling in of anyone’s desire, however different it may have been from the original.
Concerning the divine, while particular manifestations of a god idea can be used to justify any manner of behaviors, this stems from a quality of humanity, determining personal purpose through identification with a transcendent concept. People will defend their country, not even recognizing that the concept of “country” is a largely arbitrary term tied to imaginary lines on a human-made map. We’ll lament and/or wax eloquently about “family,” but rarely stop to consider that the concept means many things to many people precisely because it is bound only to data selected by each person and therefore each of us does not need to be bound to any singular form of it.
Transcendent concepts require information and experience to exist, but they do not require any particular set of information. “Family” can mean blood-relations or those you are close to, and “god” can be filled by any number of notions concerning behavior, ethics and aspirations. By reminding ourselves of how our big ideas can hold whatever we want to put in them, we can move beyond discussion of a god and focus on what people are filling it with. We can use it to separate one from another, to condemn and mock, to find shame in our very natures, or we can fill it in with what is humanizing and uplifting, a call to exhibit the best of our nature, to work towards the building of community, a committed union.
What form meaning takes is open for debate; that we will build meaning out of the parts of our lives is inevitable. If we begin in separation that is all we will find. Beginning from a place of human connection, separation and shame will have no place.