What are your values? It’s a question that puts one on the spot, and it is not easy to answer. Why? It ought to be a snap. It should be easy because, after all, there are a lot of values to choose from. How many? Care to guess? A friend sent me such a list, a list of values. Did you realize there are 418 values to choose from? 418! I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a staggering number. When I guessed (50? Maybe a 100?), I didn’t even come close. So, what is it about values that makes them so…mysterious and elusive?
Suppose it is not values that are mysterious and elusive, but people themselves. Most people worry about values. They worry about having them. They worry about having the right ones, and they worry that they are not living up to the values they do have. People worry about sharing values in their families, among their friends, in their communities. When a person’s values are at odds with one’s own, fellow feeling is an unlikely condition for either one. People believe that values are essential, even though values often make one—and others—uncomfortable.
Perhaps it’s because values, for a lot of people, are aspirational.
What does that mean? Well, a man may assert that one of his core values is Loyalty, and he means it. He looks in the mirror and sees a loyalty advocate, a defender of loyalty, a practitioner of loyalty. The fact that he is having an affair with a co-worker, or undermined a colleague to get a promotion does not necessarily derail his point of view. As long as one is aspiring, one is trying, so the value—loyalty—is still relevant. Does that make sense? Yes, I’m not sure that it does, either. But it makes sense to the man who says it is so.
A woman claims that the core value Environmentalism is dear to her. She loves the environment! She checks weather reports every day and keeps up with what is going on in environmental studies. She is familiar with climate change science; she just chooses not to believe a lot of it. She opposes a carbon tax and thinks that increasing fossil fuel production and environmental protection will work just fine together.
Then there is the man who embraces the core values of Community and Watchfulness. He believes he most effectively lives his values as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. He regularly visits white supremacist on-line sites and wishes that immigrants of color would just go back to wherever the hell it is they came from. He is as far as you can get from embodying the inspiring Emma Lazarus lines concluding her poem, The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” To this man and his brethren, these words on the Statue of Liberty are antiquated and ought to be jackhammered into oblivion.
Values can be contentious. They can drive people crazy. Values can unite and drive people apart. What good are they? Or is this a better question: why isn’t the value of values clearer than it is?
Remember the period in American history when many politicians ran on family values? If a candidate’s family values could be called into question, he’d find it difficult to be elected dogcatcher (if dogcatcher were an elected position). The potency of family values in American politics seemed perennial, until more and more politicians, including prominent ones, were outed as weak on family values (affairs, multiple marriages, sexual harassment, neglecting children).
It appears that values are not about making the world a better place to live. Instead, a value is a raison d’etre for making the world a better place for me! If I happen to be Awake, Compassionate and Sympathetic, so be it. The world outside me may benefit from my experience, from my values. If I am motivated by Power, Wealth and Pride, well, others had better watch out! Values are rooted in desire, in wanting. Welcome to the slippery slope of values—is it not so?
How, then, can poetry possess values? Perhaps any value is outside poetry’s ken. A poet has values or lacks them. Her poetry reflects that presence or absence accordingly.
Are we all clear about values? Well, how does a value differ from a belief? A poet has a belief or not, and the poem reflects that. It’s likely that the poem doesn’t believe in anything. If it’s belief one wants, one must examine the poet in the poem and beyond it. A poem as belief really does not stand alone.
According to the Barrett Values Centre, “Values unite, beliefs divide”. The Centre goes on to explain that beliefs are used to make decisions and assume causal relationships of the past. This can be dangerous, the Centre warns, because old information from the past may not be the best source to draw on when making decisions for the future. “Beliefs are contextual: They arise from learned experiences, resulting from the cultural and environmental situations we have faced.”
Did a red flag flap in your face when you just read that? ‘Old information’—History? Is that the claim? Doesn’t the endless repetition of war and oppression and genocide prove that not only do we fail to learn history’s lessons, we chronically repeat its mistakes? Do we want to say that we’re comfortable and confident in forming beliefs without historical context and the mentoring of history itself?
Values, by contrast, are neither conceptual nor based on past information. Thus, speaks the Centre. Values are universal and “arise from the experience of being human”. The Centre concludes that “When we use our values to make decisions we focus on what is important to us—what we need to feel is a sense of well-being”.