Transforming Core Values, Part 1

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”
–Seneca

Seven years ago, I moved from Alberta to Cape Breton. The big restart. I knew what I was going towards, more or less—a wife, a house, a job. But at the same time, I knew that I wouldn’t simply be able to bring me into a completely different community. My ideas about how to live, and what I wanted out of life, demanded scrutiny. Luckily for me, I’d been practicing obsessive introspection for, oh, 30 years beforehand. I wasn’t ready to make the leap, but I was more than prepared to look before I leaped.

As it turned out, very little of that introspection paid off in the long run. Within two years of moving, S. and I had our first/only child, and everything had to change all over again. But I remember one exercise that helped me early on, especially when I found myself beset with opportunities to work on other people’s projects. The exercise was about choosing values. It helped me clarify what traits I valued in myself, so I could make sure I didn’t let those habits and practices slip. When I had free time, it reminded me what I wanted to work on. And it equipped me to watch out for reflections of those values in others’ work, so I wouldn’t commit my energy to projects which didn’t end up fulfilling any of my own spiritual needs.

Recently a friend started her new job, and found that performing a similar values-sorting exercise helped her to judge very quickly whether its environment, workload, etc. was right for her. I’m not exactly starting a new job—more like hiding from my old job for a year—but her story reminded me that it’s been seven years since I scrutinized my own core values. I was surprised to find that many of the ideas I formerly listed as priorities do not even make the list any more. Yet I was delighted to see that they hadn’t all been replaced by parent-focused values, either. If anything, this list is even more self-oriented than the last one—a pattern that seems egocentric, but which is maybe appropriate when I’m about to spend 10 months soul-searching.

But enough with the preemptive analysis. Here are three of the 7 core values I selected—some of which have been amalgamated from 3-4 similarly themed ideas.

  1. Awareness

“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”
–José Ortega y Gasset

One of the central tenets of Buddhism (as I understand it), awareness or mindfulness means striving to understand your immediate surroundings, and your place within them. It involves patience, curiosity, and careful observation and study without judgment. I also associate it with wisdom, since I don’t believe it’s possible to be wise through mere intuition, or even through past experience—it requires an ongoing relationship with one’s changing world.

I did not list “awareness” in my 2009 list of core values, despite having flirted with Buddhism back then. Instead, it came through lessons I learned when trying to adapt to a new community. Importing my Western Canadian values to Cape Breton benefitted no one. In order to engage with, assist, and eventually write about my new home, I needed to keep my eyes open. The same applies tenfold to a year in France.

  1. Openness

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
–Virginia Woolf

With “openness,” I’m bundling a bunch of ideas relating to communication, honesty, and trust. I need to be honest with myself in order to write well, as Woolf implies. But I also need to be open with other people in order to keep myself from getting mired in my own cynicisms and doubts. Truth hurts, but it also cuts away so much of the delusions and attachments we carry around. If I sometimes disclose a bit more information about myself than is comfortable, relax; I’m following my value to its necessary ends.

  1. Ease with Uncertainty

“You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.”
–Pema Chödrön

Another Buddhist principle. This magical phrase has allowed me to displace half a dozen other values which clamour daily for my attention, yet which often cause pain and anxiety, not fulfillment. Yes, I value “health,” “well-being,” “family,” “financial security,” and many other aspects of my life which, let’s face it, could change or vanish in a heartbeat through no fault of my own. By forging a truce with my uncertainties—by leaning into them, as Chödrön would say, I can both appreciate the blessings I have and also prepare myself for the day they change or disappear.

I might be placing more emphasis on this idea right now than I normally would. Poised on the threshold of a new adventure, I feel uncertainty on all sides; however, my routine in Sydney was relatively stable and secure. There was always something, though, on the fringe of my awareness, wearing away at my nerves. Will the CBU faculty go on strike? Will my son get bullied today? Will the next thunderstorm become a hurricane? Will the next mole be malignant? Short of seeking out a lobotomy, there’s no way for me to stop myself from asking these sorts of questions. But I can decide what sort of weight to give them—whether each question warrants hours of agonizing doubt, or if I can simply answer myself honestly, directly, with “I don’t know” and just move on.

Because I don’t know. I can’t know. All I can know for sure is myself, through my prior experiences and actions and through these core values. If I can be aware of my surroundings, and open to my own responses, then I can probably roll with uncertainty. I’m as prepared as anyone ever can be for whatever comes next.

Next time: four more from the core.

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