I recently completed an online values assessment. I have been interested in human values since I was in my 20’s. The idealism I had at that stage of development, along with the changes happening in society in the late 1960’s, brought home to me just how key values are in my life. I have consciously and unconsciously lived a values-driven life. And so, it is no surprise to me that I am once again seeking to understand the role that values play as I grapple with our current social, political, and pandemic challenges.
The values of my early childhood were steeped in white, Protestant, middle-class terms: patriotism, loyalty, duty, punctuality, cleanliness, obedience to list a few. This status quo was rocked by the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Lib movement, and the Anti-War movement. Each of these movements arose from values that paralleled the ones I had been taught, but from a different perspective.
I have never felt a stronger sense of belonging than when I shared my fears and vulnerabilities in Women’s Consciousness Raising groups, or sang “We Shall Overcome” while protesting segregated schools with African Americans. I learned that taking a stand wasn’t always successful in the short term, but every attempt at change furthered the cause.
I have never felt more patriotic than when I joined thousands of other anti-war protesters at the Democratic Convention in 1968 in Chicago or rode a bus to Washington DC for the March on Washington. I was passionate about engaging in political action that was directed at making my country better.
I learned the benefits of charitable giving by collecting pennies for UNICEF, visiting housebound members of my church and sharing flowers and conversation with them. These acts were reinforced by the feelings of satisfaction and happiness I got in doing them.
Values are multi-dimensional, having powerful motivational properties. They can inspire us to take action above and beyond the call of duty. To make sacrifices, including our very lives, when we believe in something greater than our small selves. There are no end of inspirational stories of the sacrifices human beings have made to help strangers in times of war or disaster.
Values can also be fear-based. If I believe I am not enough, or I am unloveable, or that I do not have enough to survive, I might claim values such as revenge, blame, or manipulation give me the right to do or have something because these values will level a playing field or restore my reputation or good name.
Back in the late 1940’s, Abraham Maslow studied values as a way of understanding what motivated people to strive to grow. His insights have been used by psychologists and businesses in the intervening decades to help develop leaders who make values-driven decisions. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sets out basic tenets required to grow and develop based not only on genetics or circumstance, but on acquisition of skills and attitudes that allow for each of us to develop to our true potential.
For example, it is virtually impossible for someone to flourish if their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are at risk (the first two levels in Maslow’s hierarchy). We see this happening now with the unexpected economic consequences of the pandemic. Too many humans have a tenuous grip on secure housing, food, and safety. Protections in place since the New Deal have been whittled away, and now many older adults who have relied on subsidized housing to augment their Social Security are on the verge of homelessness. Remaining confined to these levels causes people to experience intense anxiety, chronic depression, and consequently, poor health.
Having a sense of security that comes from belonging and being loved are key needs if we are to develop. But they don’t guarantee enlightenment, and, in fact, it is all too easy to turn these needs into blind loyalty and exclusivity. Finding and belonging to something that makes you feel good about yourself can range from benign (e.g., a fraternity or social service organization) to cultish, such as found with members of the KKK or Neo-Nazis. The current president understands this all too well and he has used his understanding to create a deeply divisive, blindly-loyal MAGA base.
The next level of development contains many societal reinforcements. These include a sense of accomplishment, prestige, status, and acknowledgment by others of what you have done. Many older adults, especially those who are no longer finding ways to contribute to their communities through working, volunteering, mentoring or sharing their wisdom, find themselves becoming invisible. I have worked with older adults who are phenomenally accomplished, but are now considered to be stupid, uneducated, or infantile because of the ignorance or ageism of those who are interacting with them.
The final level of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization. When Maslow did his initial research, he didn’t find many folks who had gotten this far in their development. Now, more than a half-century later, with the emergence of neuroplasticity and the popularity of mindfulness and wellness practices, more and more people are finding their true potential and tapping into wells of creativity.
And what better time for all humanity? We are faced with a plethora of challenges that are proving overwhelming for those people who have not been able to move through these levels. A return to tribalism and systematic destruction of institutions that were founded on strong values of helping others is forcing many of us to re-think our values. This is a worthwhile practice.
If you believe that personal mastery involves overcoming or eliminating fear-based beliefs, then you can understand why it is important to be able to use values as a decision-making tool. When we are out of alignment with what is important to us, we often are frozen in inaction and experience inner conflict and distress. Finding ways to re-align are essential if we are to act and relieve our cognitive dissonance.
We are living in times where so much is out of alignment with our national values. We cannot speak to others if we differ because we cannot find common ground. Finding common ground can be done by exploring what values are shared. From shared values can come shared decision-making instead of blame-making. And from this, we can find our way out of this mess.