Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Peace: Living According to Your Values

Peace and harmony result when each part of the puzzle finds its proper place.  Peace of mind works similarly. Each of our faculties has to be working in harmony if we are going to have a smooth ride. This is especially true when we live in harmony with our values. Our conscience must give its approval to our values and choices. This isn’t merely a Christian idea. Carlin Flora writes:

  • If you aren’t living according to your values, you won’t be happy, no matter how much you are achieving. (“The Pursuit of Happiness,” Psychology Today,  Jan/Feb 2009, pg. 69.)

Flora acknowledges that “Some people, however, aren’t aware of their values.” Even if we do act according to our values, we are often unaware of what these values are. This problem is exacerbated by postmodernism and  moral relativism, where “values” are just a matter of how you feel when you wake up in the morning. Rather than our values directing our lives, our lives, preferences and feelings direct our values. They are consequently no more than our tastes – things we have randomly acquired like the flu.

If this is our values-orientation, we will only live by them when they deliver a payoff, when they work for us. This orientation is unable to provide for us a meaning-of-life, something that ennobles our lives and connects us to something bigger than we are. Consequently, we go no further than connecting to ourselves, and our lives are confined to waiting for the next sensual, mindless fix, the next meal, movie, or distraction.

What then is the answer? Invent a system of values and arbitrarily invest it with meaning? This strategy has often been tried and found wanting. The atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche astutely observed,

  • He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

However, inventing this “why to live for” can be deceptively difficult, perhaps even impossible. We may not be able to produce a meaningful set of values from our creative imaginations. Values must be discovered and not invented. Invented values are arbitrary, temporary and subjective and therefore fail to carry the necessary authority to direct our lives.

After a few months in college, I gladly became a nihilist. I refused to believe that we are constrained by certain values or moral absolutes from above. Instead, I believed that I was free to re-create myself. I was the captain of my ship. However, my ship failed to carry me where I ultimately wanted to go – to a place of meaning and peace. It was like simply imagining that I was the savior of the world. Although this fantasy might initially give a sense of self-importance, its ultimate port-of-call was a psychotic non-reality.

If our values are going to govern our lives, we must be convinced of their transcendence. The idea of submitting to a value that is no more than a chemical reaction does not carry the necessary authority to constrain our lower impulses. A strong impulse to take revenge cannot be curbed by the lesser chemical impulse of a value. Our animal impulses will inevitably predominate, and so will depression!

Similarly, basing our value system upon our decision-making capacity suffers from the same weaknesses. Philosopher Charles Taylor writes:

  • I am free when I decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences. Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves. Self-determining freedom demands that I break the hold of external impositions, and decide for myself alone.

Taylor is convinced that his internal GPS is more authoritative than any external standards. But what if his GPS is no more than an electro-chemical reaction? Why place such weighty expectations upon it?  What is the “self” that it should be our compass? Will it also become a bridge to our ultimate hopes and dreams? Do we find the truth for which we search within its changing dimensions and emotional upheavals? Do not our value judgments require something more stable?

Confusion, instability and the sense that we have no inner core are the fruits of this. Besides, there are many conflicting feelings and ideas in our hearts. What makes the pursuit of justice any more noble than the pursuit of revenge or lust? Aren’t they equally children of the self? Are we then left without any guidance?

Instead, we truly discover ourselves and our values when we view them from a true and unchanging source. In the same way that we need a mirror or a photo to see ourselves as we are, we require something more than just our conflicting inner intuitions as our moral compass.

Perhaps, we are pursuing the antithesis of values and meaning? Perhaps our Western quest for self-sufficiency has blinded us, placing a defective compass in our palm? Instead, we were created for a relationship with the One on whom we can rest our burdens and carry His. Jesus counseled:

  • "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

His yoke must become our values. It is under His burden and in His service that we find our rest and sense of authentic self.

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