Having the right values is a hot topic for those seeking a meaningful life. If you ever hope to achieve wholesome living then your values have to cohere with that kind of life.
Why are wholesome values connected to such a life? They are like a compass on a boat; they lead you through both sunny days and stormy nights. Being an unfailing guide, correct values steer you in the right direction, even when you seem lost at sea.
However, values often do not cohere with such a life and we are left with a compass that points not to virtue, but to vice. Understand the nature of values and you will understand why.
I Consume, Therefore I Value
Being a living, breathing person, you have certain requirements to continue being that same living, breathing person. Food, drink, medical care, social interaction; the works. You need these things in order to be a healthy human being.
But the world is not fair and resources are not always plentiful. As a result, the way things play out matter to you, mostly because you have a small stake in whatever is going on.
You have the power to behave in a way that allows you to attain those needs and wants. You are not some idle, passive onlooker. You are a player in the game, an actor in the film and as such, you have the power to change the outcome.
Values are a reflection of that state of nature. You are interested in the outcome, not because of mere curiosity, but because you desire it to turn out a certain way. You care about what is going on.
Steering The Ship
Values steer us in certain directions, whether we know where or not. To put it simply, actions have consequences, and our values guide our actions.
Values, spoken of in this manner, are the sort of things which we desire, want, or need. They can range from a chocolate cake to a happy family. They can range from things we want to help us get forward in life or just because we like them. They have no moral ground, they just are there for whatever reason.
Being there though means they mean something to us, they direct our attention and energy. When I am valuing chocolate cake, the celery sitting next to it might as well not exist.
The value steers my behavior, gives me a little nudge to act in a certain way. I can decide whether or not to follow through with that behavior.
Short vs. Nearsighted
Why would I not follow through with eating the cake, though?
I have what I want, what I desire, right in front of me. The delicious chocolate is beckoning me to eat. It must be that there is something else I want, beyond the eating of the cake, that conflicts with it. Perhaps I’m trying to lose weight. Or maybe the cake costs some money and I’m needing to save.
The difference here is between some value present to me and some value that is a future prediction of mine, given I behave in a certain way.
The two conflict, forcing me to make a decision.
There exists different kinds of values: Present and future. We are able to predict, forecast, hypothesize how things are going to play out. Because of this, we are able to steer ourselves towards certain ends which may be far off. However, we know just how important it is to plan these things.
These future values have a direct impact upon how we currently act, that is, if they are important enough to us.
Intensity of Value
Sometimes we eat the cake anyway, even when we are completely aware of its conflict with wanting to lose weight. This is due to the intensity of the value. Because it is present, the value is stronger.
If someone came up to you and offered either 20 dollars now or 100 dollars later, which would you choose? As a catch, he announces that the 100 dollars is not a solid thing. You may get it. It will also be 3 months down the road. The decision becomes much harder. You can either take the sure thing now or bet on the higher prize later.
The intensity of that sure thing is strong. It’s there, ready for the taking.
But while presence is a characteristic of a pressing value, it is not always so.
Depth of Value
There are also those values which mean so much to us we are unwavering in our attempt to align our path with them. They are meaningful because we have come to see the true importance of them.
An adolescent teen gets made fun of for being overweight. They get angry. So angry, in fact, that a whole stack of cake would not deter them from their goal. The value of losing weight cuts deep into their soul and they will stop at nothing to attain it.
While emotion is a key element to the depth of values, the ability to think reflectively is important as well.
It is through reflection that the thinker will see how that value is connected to other goals they wish to attain.
A young man is interested in many things. He wants to do well in school, in sports, socially, and wants to be happy. Through study and through reflection he begins to see how sleeping better will allow him to better excel at all these things. He sets out to train himself to go to bed earlier. The goal of doing so well in so many different things connects deeply within him, and although his friends are constantly pressuring him to stay out, he declines often, because he knows the true value of sleep.
Through his own ability to think he was able to connect himself emotionally with the value. It meant something to him.
Superficial values are acquired through thoughtless activity. They are merely connected to single instances or opinions. While we believe they have emotional content, when push comes to shove, we act differently when the time comes.
Blending The Three
Having wholesome values, especially of the kind that lead to wholesome living, require blending the different characteristics of values. We want those things we seek in the future to have depth. This will achieve two different things:
(1) The value will more likely be one worth going after. If you reflect and evaluate the value you will have a better chance of seeing its true worth.
(2) The value will more likely be more meaningful. It will be a more intense value as you have made it connect to all of your activities.
We want to tone down the intensity of superficial values. We do this by becoming aware of the difference between a deep and superficial value. When that value shows up, we need to have the guts to evaluate it. If its existence hinges on false foundations, then we need to shrug it off.
To tone down the intensity of superficial values you need to have depth in the value of genuine action, or action that arises out of your own reflective thought, not by the coercion of others.
Seeing It From Above
Finally, we need to be able to see everything from above. We have to step back and see how all values are connected. How some conflict while others are synergistic.
This adds to the depth of all wholesome values, as those that are wholesome will compliment each other, while showing the poor values for what they truly are: Disconnected and destructive.
What does it mean to value? It means to care about something. How much you do and should care about certain things are different questions. Use your judgment to find the answer.