Note: I may have published and deleted this post on this blog about a year ago, but I am re-posting it now.
I was asked recently about my values, and specifically about my top three values. Recent circumstances have been forcing me to a greater level of self-honesty: what really are my values–my actual top three values, not simply those I want others to think are my top three? As I thought of the answer to this question, I realized that two of my dearest values have arisen as a reaction to the way I was raised, while the other is a continuation of my family history.
First and foremost: freedom. Freedom for me comprises three parts: intellectual, sexual, and aesthetic. Intellectual freedom for me means the freedom to access information and opinion. It’s the freedom to weigh evidence and make my own conclusions. It’s the freedom to question, to criticize, to ridicule, and even to abhor. Just because a respected philosophy claims something is true doesn’t mean I’ll believe it. Just because a large religion claims something is precious doesn’t mean I can’t feel that the opposite is true, that that something is a complete affront to our common humanity. Similarly, I am an individualist when it comes to sexual freedom; I believe that anything consenting adults do, as long as it does not cause them or others harm, is permissible. In my perfect world, the sexual freedom of a given adult, while perhaps of interest to others, would be guaranteed by the law (as long as fraud, coercion, or deliberate harm were not involved). To be honest, the number of people who seem terrified of anything other than monogamous, heterosexual marriages, is quite puzzling to me. Until I die, I will oppose judging and condemning others based on their sexual orientations or identities. Finally, freedom for me involves accessing, interpreting, and enjoying aesthetic experiences. My early fundamentalist Protestant upbringing did instill in me something that would later morph into an appreciation for classical music, but after I left that entire system of thinking, I was far better able to appreciate the non-auditory aesthetic pleasures afforded by a flower, painting, photograph, or building. Freedom, then, is about rejecting “systems” that tie down the human spirit, whether intellectually, sexually, or aesthetically, and in saying so, I find myself a student of Nietzsche rather than a child of God.
My second most important value is empathy, and this I feel is two-fold; the term for me denotes the potential for love and the capacity for gentleness. Empathy understands others, whether intellectually or emotionally, and seeks to give them what they need. For me, this is truly a form of love. For this reason, I try to “be there” for others (with varying degrees of success, unfortunately!), and I also value it when others are there for me. Similarly, being gentle with one’s neighbours is just as important as “being there” for them. Gentleness implies a level of emotional self-control when it comes–for example–to anger. I appreciate calmness and consideration in others, and I greatly admire tact and excellent conflict management skills in others. Overall, I wish that I was more empathetic towards others, but despite my own shortcomings in this area, empathy remains the virtue I consider most important. In short, if freedom is of vital importance to me, then empathy–which provides a much-needed balance–is, too.
After some reflection, I realized that my first two values arose in reaction to the way I was raised. My upbringing taught me that only evangelical Christians would go to heaven; everyone else in the world would most likely be sent to hell. My church taught me that any sexual activity outside of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage was a sin worthy of death and eternal hellfire. Even if we set aside the issue of sexual orientation, which is innate, it is clear that in a world where people marry at forty rather than fourteen, such values are far removed from reality. These outlandish positions were based on an “understanding” of the Bible that was prevalent in the religious community in which I grew up, and which is sadly still all too dominant in some quarters. It is little wonder, then, that in my own life I have sought out the polar opposites of these: freedom rather than a straitjacket, and empathy rather than the cold dogmatism of those who cannot truly listen to any viewpoint but their own.
My third value, though, is something that my parents would still approve of: family. I will admit, though, that it is the nuclear family I find important, and specifically, my energy and focus is towards the younger generation in my family rather than the older one. (This preference, too, can be seen as a rejection of the value system with which I was raised.) For me, family is not an institution that solves all my problems, or that heals all my hurts. Nevertheless, having a family, even as an imperfect husband and father, has brought into being something that is wonderful. Above all, I find my young son a blessing. Despite the fact that I never wanted children, he continues to delight me with his innocence and energy, and he is the best surprise of my life. I want to be in his life for each day while he grows up, and I want to have a good relationship with him after he learns to be his own person with his own independence. My son has given my life a good deal more meaning than I possessed before. All in all, while family life might be sometimes difficult, family itself remains life-giving and deeply meaningful.
I wrote the following about half a year ago in a private context, and am publishing it here now:
Individual human beings have within them creative potential, and this potential includes love. Among the greatest good for this particular human being, that is, me, is to give and receive love in the context of a meaningful relationship with a woman with whom I can grow old together—what is traditionally called the sacrament of marriage–and all this in the context of my family as it exists now: father, mother, and son. Without such relationships, I am nothing but a clanging cymbal.
The greatest responsibility anyone can have is the responsibility of a parent to his child. As a “daddy,” it is my duty to give my son love, stability, and mentoring as he grows throughout childhood and adolescence. I recognize that most boys and young men need a father-figure in their lives, and it is best when the father-figure is in fact the actual father. While allowing my son to become his own person, I want to pass on to my son what I have learned of love, art, and intellectual history, whether directly through life experience or indirectly through reading the great literature of our past. It is my hope that he can learn from my mistakes and avoid the worst of them, while using the momentum of my love for him and my knowledge of the world to experience life in his own way.
Added paragraph, Jan. 23, 2012:
None of what I have written above in any way implies that I have answers to many of life’s biggest questions, or that I am some kind of moral exemplar. What I have written above is more of a trajectory or approach rather than something carved in stone. It’s where I am at in my own life as I consider its meaning in terms of love, responsibility, empathy, and freedom. Perhaps some of the most significant introspection I can do surrounds issues of motivation–particularly subconscious motivation–of my actions, with examining them to see how they fit (or do not) in relation to the values described above. Life may be a state of mind, as the movie Being There puts it, but my life continues to be a work in progress. And ultimately, that’s a good thing.