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The Obsolescence of Values


Bob Dylan once wrote that if you don’t stand for something, then you’ll fall for anything. Truer words have never been written.

As a matter of fact, we all believe in something. We all have values, whether we inherited them from our parents, learned them at our church, or picked them up from our friends. We live our lives by these values; they are the lines that can’t be crossed. They define the borders of our lives.

It is part of our human nature to want our values to be shared. This not only validates our belief system but it also makes dealing with others easier, because we can understand where they are coming from when we know they’re coming from the same place that we are. We tend to gravitate towards people with shared values; marriages are often based on them, and the groups we join or at least identify with usually share at least those core values.

Our values define our attitudes towards everything; politics, faith, relationships, economics, even entertainment. Some of our values are those that we can easily define; others we have no idea where they come from. We know what our political affiliation is, for example, and we know how that affiliation developed. However, we may not know where our attitudes towards food and exercise have evolved from. It is in the DNA of some people to be more active than others.

All our decisions are based on our values, even our snap decisions – some might say especially those. If we believe that lying is bad, then we tell the truth, even if it is painful. If we believe that sparing someone’s feelings is more important than telling the truth, we may act on that belief.

For some of us, the central value is making our lives better at the expense of others. We call this behavior amoral, and it is more rampant than ever. We see it in the actions of CEOs who make decisions that put profits over people. We see it in the actions of salespeople who lie and manipulate in order to make a commission.

I also see it in my own behavior from time to time. I think the attitude is that the world isn’t taking care of me, so I have to take care of myself. That’s understandable and true to a certain extent. However, it leaves out part of the equation; if I take care of the world, then perhaps the world will take care of me.

Let me put it another way. If I go out with a group of my friends to the local pub and only buy drinks for myself, then chances are everyone in my group is going to follow suit. However, if I buy a round of drinks for all my friends, chances are they’re going to reciprocate. I may wind up having more drinks than I might have if I had just been buying my own. That I would wind up completely smashed and stupid-drunk is beside the point.

The point is that when you look out for others, they are often inspired to do the same. If we all start taking care of each other, we are going to find ourselves taken care of. Our focus becomes broader, less narrow. The world becomes a kinder place.

I understand that it’s an unlikely scenario. Too many people are too greedy, you might argue and you’d be right. My response is that just because the actions of a few are contra-productive doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try. After all, we have the numbers; and if we look out for each other, we may find that united we overcome the greed and selfishness of a few. I know, a crazy concept but we see how well standing on our own is working.

Because we have become so self-focused we have lost our sense of community to a large extent. Neighborhoods used to be places where residents looked out for one another, socialized together and shared a common character. These days, neighborhoods are largely collections of dwellings where people have a passing acquaintance with one another. While there are still a few left, the neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone else are an endangered species.

It can be argued that with the advent of the Internet and social networking sites that we have become a global neighborhood. In theory it’s a good thing; we become more aware of the issues that affect us all, and perhaps gain a greater understanding of people in other places. However, the down side is that it draws our focus from the immediate surroundings; those who live down the block get less emphasis than people who live on a different continent.

I will admit that I have gained a great deal from sites like America Online, Facebook and MyYearbook. I have learned that values that are self-focusing are destructive to all of us. In many ways, those types of values are as antiquated as rotary phones and Nehru jackets. We’re all aware of the problems the world faces; economically, environmentally and socially. We can’t afford the luxury of being selfish for much longer or else we face the prospect of being obsolete as a species.

The common good should outweigh the individual good; that is what experience, morality and ethics teach us. However, life teaches us that it’s every man (or woman) for themselves, and if we don’t look out for our own interests, no-one will look out for them. I propose that we can rise above that; some people already do. That’s why I admire people who work for causes like Greenpeace, Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels or other causes that promote the betterment of all. Heck, I can even admire the Tea Baggers even if I disagree with their politics – at least they’re standing up for something they believe will make life better. Most of the rest of us are far too lazy or far too busy to do the same.

The point is that our ethics as a species are our only legacy and it is how we will be judged in the long run, either by future generations that will applaud our efforts to change the world and make it a better place, or by alien archaeologists who will come upon the ruins of our world and be saddened by our short-sightedness.

I am not a big believer in organized religion but I do have what I consider to be a goodly amount of faith; faith that human beings can overcome our own shortcomings and become greater than the sum of our parts. If God created us in His own image, then surely we have that capacity within us. We are wasting that gift on petty possessions and meaningless dramas. Now is a good time to act on those qualities and hopefully your values will guide your conscience to do just that. If your set of values doesn’t include sacrifice and putting others ahead of yourself, perhaps it’s time to re-examine who you are and what you’re about. A little soul searching never hurt anyone, after all.

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