Sunday, November 4, 2007

:: Reform and Performance ::

Values. Those things we believe as individuals and as cultures. Things we believe about morality and ethics, things we believe about religion and politics, things we believe about the way the social order should work, the things we believe about things like beauty, justice, and goodness.

I think of values as the things that tell me what I want to be like or how I want to live my life. Values are the things that help me make decisions. They’re ingrained in me so that I don’t need to weigh every option every single time I am presented with a choice – I use my values as a shortcut for deciding what to do, how to act, which path to take, etc.

Sometimes, our personal values differ from the values of those around us. Personal values may be influenced by cultural and societal values but they are also the result of a lifetime of our own interactions with the external world. Personal values evolve out of our experiences even as they help us shape those experiences (by influencing our choices, perceptions, attitudes). It’s a recursive process.

Every once in a while, though, the process doesn’t work the way it should. A situation arises in which two different values collide dead smack against one another. Or, I meet someone I admire and suddenly I can’t tell the difference between my own values and my admiration for someone else’s. Because I do think of values as “what I want to be like,” sometimes I find myself staring a problem or decision head on and wondering how and why I can want to be like two things at once. It’s a problem, I guess, of an undefined values hierarchy.

A case in point: the television. I am unclear how I feel about it. Sometimes I want to put ours in a closet and never let it see the light of day except, say, during the Tour de France when there are exciting doping scandals 21 days of crashes, break-aways, time trials, and good old fashioned rivalries. Other times, I wonder what the big deal is about watching TV and think, Isn't putting your TV in the closet sort of like cutting out all refined sugars -- sure there are probably valid reasons to do it but what's the fun?

Or how about gym attendance? I am wildly undecided about whether I want to go to the gym and, because I'm nothing if not metaphysically-minded, whether or not I want to be the sort of person who goes to the gym. I really don't like gyms, but at the same time I really admire the women in my life who go to the gym regularly. I hear them talk about this kickboxing class or that weights class or about running on the treadmill or something and I think, I want to be like that.

In my head, all these things bounce around like superballs on a rubber floor and I can no longer determine which way is up.

Why I must turn every minor thing into a statement on what kind of person I am is beyond me. I do not remember having role models as a child who couldn't make decisions or who were obsessed with self-portrayals so I really can't figure how I became one of these people.

A bit of irony? This is one of my few personality traits that I feel I have no choice about. Everything else in my living breathing life seems somehow up for grabs, mine to shape as I see fit.

More irony?  I search and search for someone to model myself after who doesn't always have to model herself after someone else.  I know; it's very postmodern of me, copies of copies and all.

Trouble is, I can’t make heads or tails of how to get out of this trap. I have no answers about how to reconcile the things I admire in others with my values and beliefs about how to conduct my own life. I don’t know what to do when my values tell me one thing and the reality that is my life tells me something different. I struggle to organize my values into a clear hierarchy whereby I know just what to do in each case.

I think I read or heard somewhere that depression is the result of being stuck at a crossroads and not knowing how to progress. I feel lucky that I’ve learned to keep my difficulty understanding my own values within a reasonable and manageable range. I can’t say that that has always been the case. And yet on any given day I still feel mildly tortured by decisions like whether to keep my gym membership, what kind of winter coat to buy, whether I am the kind of person who wears bright pink or birkenstock sandals.

In a world where, to quote a song I've always liked, "we know the difference between the font of twenty percent more and the font of teriyaki," I am the ultimate susceptible consumer. Everything for me is a sign of something else. Every action is a copy of some other action. Every choice I make is a statement about who I am and every single day is a new opportunity to be someone or something else.

What I find most interesting, though, is that I don't think people see me this way. I think people see me as stable and unchanging. I can't even wrap my head around that because I feel like I am a new person everyday.  A new and improved version of myself.

And I wonder, of course, whether all of this is normal. I suspect that other people don’t turn each and every daily decision into a question of what they believe, but maybe I am completely wrong about this.  My husband told me Friday, over so much yummy sushi, that he thinks this is more normal than I would ever imagine.  No one would ever grow if we weren't always testing our values, changing our minds, he told me.

Are we all daily self-reformers? Are we all performing our identities with each item of clothing worn, each morsel of food consumer, each show watched or unwatched?  Are you?


hubby November 4, 2007 at 5:05 PM  

Back in my philosophical days I read a book of very limited value - a sort of tongue-in-cheek intorduction to existentialism (the name of which I cannot remember right now - perhaps Meet the Existentialists). The book was a fictional interview (because the philosophers in question were all dead when the book was written, and probably wouldn't have subjected themselves to that interview, anyway) with some of the most well known "existentialists" - Sartre, Heidegger, etc.. Anyway, the only thing I remember about that book is neither any particular philosopher's particular point, nor how any of those philosophers' views changed over time, but simply that they did change over time. Some of them, in later years, in fact, came to contradict some of the philosophies iterated by their earlier - and presumably more ideological, immature, ignorant, exuberant, and/or brash - selves.

My point: I can only assume that such changes occured as a result of those philosophers living in the world everyday, interacting with, reading the works of, thinking about, and maybe, though they probably wouldn't admit it, modeling themselves after other people they admired. Or didn't.

Oh, actually, another thing I remember about that book is how humorous some of the philosophers found it that their ideas had changed so much, and how good natured they were about the interviewer pointing such things out to them.

Julie Pippert November 5, 2007 at 7:47 AM  

Oh sigh.

This is one reason I don't care that I'm almost 40 now. I don't care about others' values...not in that I don't give a rat's rear way, I mean in the "I'm more myself" kind of way.

I do know what you mean.

Sometime, around 35 I think, I realized I was not really living my life, per se, I was living the life that I thought I should and that I thought would make people like and love me. I'd let those voices crowd out my own. So I worked to get back on track. It was the mommyhood that did me in, actually.

Believe it or not, blogging helped. LOL

So I've found philosophies and concepts I like and then I say, "Okay here's how these people do it, what's MY way?"

The problem with this is it has brought out my inner anarchist, the one life, society and public school has invested so heavily in trying to snuff out.

It is why I am having so much trouble with Patience in public school right now, as I watch them endeavour to mold them into a mass, instead of nurturing the individual. Oy I see where peer pressure starts: from the ADULTS in the school.

It's a tough bag, actually, complicated, this weighing of individual need against fitting into the society. I haven't worked my way out of this paper bag yet.

I hate gyms, but I know I admire people who work out there because they are working to healthy. Okay, I say, so how do I like to work out and get healthy?

I walk! I walk and think.

Great post!

Using My Words

Julie November 5, 2007 at 9:26 AM  

Julie (Pippert),

I walk, too. Asked last night what ten things I would keep in my life if I could only keep ten, I listed family, books (but only if I don't have to take notes on them), music, and, among a few others, walks outside. I take Evan for 2-mile walks every day. So I'm with you there.

And I definitely find that the older I get, the less I care what other people think of ME, but I don't think less about role models in my own life. The gym-going ladies I mention above, or the TV-closeters, I can't say I care too much what they think of my non-gym-going or my nightly TV-watching, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about why they make the choices they do and what it is about their choices that I admire. Like you said, is it their going-to-the-gymness or, more likely, their commitment to staying healthy. But looking to other people helps me understand these things.

My problem, I think, if it's a problem, isn't that I care what others think (although sometimes I do) but that sometimes I can't tell what I think because I admire so many varied and conflicting things in others.

-- Julie

Toni November 13, 2007 at 4:31 AM  

It is early morning and I'm am unable to put a coherent thought together yet but the day will get away from me and I will forget to come back later and say how much I appreciated your honesty and perspective in this post. I will forget to let you know your not the only one who struggles with values and identity and I will forget (as I have for the past week since I actually read this) to tell you that I am mulling over what you wrote and that I like having something to mull over as I cook the meals and clean the clothes and dust the dust etc, etc, etc.

Keep writing. :)