When I studied Political Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield, I was always intrigued by Greek Literature. The traditional Greek hero is one of the most archetypical characters in literature and has defined the way many modern ‘heroes’ are written or acted out today. He is usually of noble birth, valorous and chivalrous, loyal to the state and to his family (whatever those names or settings may be), and has an unimpeachable code of values. However, the quality which makes each Greek hero unique is his one tragic flaw, which would often lead to his undoing (unfortunately). Among some of the more popular stories is the story of Othello, which hits upon the subject of values and how those values can lead to unforeseen tragedy. In Greek literature, this is more commonly known as catharsis. Catharsis is (at its core) what it means to, say “have a good cry”. Its why watching the virtuous, noble, and loyal Ned Starks in the novel and tele-series Game of Thrones is such a complexity. His sense of finding the good in people can on one hand seem to make us smile and when he dies for those same values, we also cry and mourn because we also know that those values can’t be the only thing one holds to in life. Through our own catharsis, we understand the importance of accepting and understanding modern society and being aware of the realities of our environment versus living in one that is theoretical and in a future state. While Game of Thrones may be set in a fantasy land, it can be said it is reflective of our current day political climate: warring political parties grappling for control of our nations, friends-turned-foes, activists, and martyrs. A reader can identify with a character like Stark and go through their own catharsis while he goes through his. Though this is the most common usage of catharsis, its not the only definition.
I’ve read in more current philosophical studies that a closer definition of the word is that of ‘clarification’, where instead of looking at a character like Ned Stark and examining our feelings for him and his situation we may find ourselves examining the situation and the climate that Stark is in and what that tells us about the world around him and ourselves. These images and stories aren’t ‘just’ illusions, but they also present a perspective about the world we live in and what that says about humanity. It communicates complex truths, invites people into reflection, and helps people process the reality of their day-to-day experience. Even as none of us live in a time similar to the Ned Starks lived in, we do share in common the uncertainty, the death, the mystery of a time yet to be examined or determined — it can all feel so overwhelming at times, right? However, it can also be as ‘clarifying’ as any well given sermon or therapy session. These performances offer us the opportunity to define and examine the values that are most important to us and to perhaps make choice that move us closer to the lives we want to live.
I recall a time in which a friend of the family asked me in a private conversation, “what do you value”? Now, I’m not sure if she was looking for a response as much as she was asking me to assess what that means to me in the context of the conversation we were having (S/o to Shirley Lytle and her counseling practice). For many of us, values take us back to those 4hr Sunday mornings in church where a minister preaches from a bully pit the gospels according to the disciples and his/her own experiences. And, for others, it might summon memories of parental figures who reprimand us when we’ve deviated too far from there guidance and/or love. And, in other cases, maybe our values stem from the edicts of those who govern us and tell us what is right and wrong in perhaps a harsh or unfair way. These are the edicts of our circumstances that might drive us to a purpose but not the intentionality of personal values that I think my friend was wishing to discuss. A more agile or productive way to think about our values is to see them as qualities of purposeful action that we can bring to many parts of our lives. There is no ‘one size fits all’ values. Values that are important to me, might matter very little to you — and vice-versa. What ties them all together is that our values can act as a proverbial north star in our actions and lead us to our purpose or in the pursuit of the person you would like to become. They become your “why”. They become the underlying reason why you do what you do. Values are different than goals as they are not achievable or things to check off, rather they are ongoing and helping us to move forward (even as our circumstances change). Any list I could have offered to that question would have been woefully incomplete. Loyalty, intellectual stimulation, accountability, happiness, love, social acceptance, being a present parent/partner/friend — there aren’t any wrong answers. However, there are answers that are more aligned with how we live and I think that’s the thing that we have to continue to discover. What I’ve observed during this pandemic is that understanding your values (or, “why”) become even MORE important in a time of crisis and that the crisis has a way of bringing those values to the forefront in a very clear and intentional way.
Every day decisions become loaded with significance: Should we visit my mother on her birthday or hold off until some indefinite point in the future? Should I ask my employees to return to the office this month? Next Quarter? Next Summer?
Further the pandemic has viscerally changed all or our lives in more ways than I think we can see or believe at this time. And, often (as I am fully aware), those changes force us to have to take a step back and assess the full scope of our lives. With mortality being so close to the surface of our existence in this present time, it has made me think about how I want to live each day. Many days I wake up feeling inspired and present about the day and what comes before me. While on others, I feel clueless and unsure and tend to limit the scope of what I will attempt to accomplish on that day. I think many others are wrestling with this idea as well. I think for many of us our work defines our purpose and provides a means to an end. However, when the shutdown happened, many of us had to rethink if that still holds true and what that holds for the future. On days like this, I felt it was important to ground myself in present setting and/or place. The practice of awareness and gratitude when in those moments can be helpful. Sometimes I used a journal or a social media site to formalize these values, other times I thought about them through reflection and sharing with close friends and family, and often I would read on those things to explore further and see if there were areas of improvement or agreement. For example, I signed up for the food delivery service of Blue Apron back in 2013–14 and have been a user of the service ever since. I love being able to prepare unique and quality dishes for my family and learn about different foods and spices. This practice (perhaps) satisfies my value of intellectual stimulation and problem solving. It also provides a time that I can capture my family’s attention and get appreciation, acceptance, and love. Another example would be my practice of running. I have worked out on a regular cadence since I was an 18-year-old USMC Recruit in Camp Pendleton, CA. I value my health and mental well-being and I believe that physical fitness plays a big part in improving and maintaining these attributes.
Another way of thinking about the question is to consider what you would be doing if you were suddenly liberated from all your worries and concerns? Now, before you consider quitting your day job and flying off to Paris to work on art and sculpting, I strongly advise you not to act on this question in haste, but to consider what it reveals and what does that mean to you in this moment. A dream such as the one I mentioned here might suggest that today you value adventure, expression, and intellectual stimulation. Or, if you wished that you had more children, then perhaps that means you value family and the ties that exist within the dynamic of ‘family’. Even the tough emotions that you have right now, can provide meaningful insight into what you truly value, because usually they are in contradiction with something opposite or misunderstood on the other end. Our anxiety, our frustration, our sadness — even our anger can display the things that matter to us and that we care for. Your fury at US legislators divides on issues in DC or your state capitol may indicate that you value rationality or compassion. Your child’s frustration with not being able to go to their favorite playroom or museum may not be just selfishness or an inability to understand the nature of things going on, but that it bumps up against their ability to be creative, have community, or have adventure.
Identifying your values, so that they aren’t abstract ideas — but are known and explicit to your actions and decisions — can be incredibly helpful and grounding. Because, your values are the essence of who you are and are the heartbeat of your “why”.
I’ll close with this quote from the book “The Little Prince” that says “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” What I appreciate most about this quote is that it speaks to me in the same manner I journaled here today. And, that is that values come from the heart; not the head. And, that which comes from the heart is not finite or fleeting, but rather it is intentional and purposeful even in the face of a crisis, opportunity, or extenuating circumstances. It’s a compass in those times. Values also help inoculate us against choices that are not our own, but they do not protect us from their consequences. Without even knowing it, we can start picking up on behaviors that are not our own or go counter to our own values. While I love posting on social media about my family and my joy in being a husband and father, someone else seeing those same posts might see the joy I am expressing but know that my lifestyle choices are not the ones for them or even see them as flawed. Values are not paraphernalia that we put on one day and take off the next, but they are our ‘true north’ settings that keep us in intentionality even when the world tries to shake you off course. Thank you for reading today! — Brace