“To be mature you have to realize what you value most. It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity. They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them. They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own. Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbors, of their parents or family. Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
I can’t remember when exactly I first read this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, but it is one that has stuck with me. Every time I read it I extract something a little different. Through most of college I focused on not imbibing values simply because they were presented to me. I had spent my last two years of high school as what I considered a “flexible thinker” — trying to learn as many different opinions as I could and allow my ideas to be challenged, biases questioned, and values guided by friends and family. In college I actively tried to develop a bit more clarity: I started tracking where my values came from and why.
In a class exercise I was forced to narrow down a long list of values to a mere “most important” three. It is an activity I have since replicated for various groups and always learn something new from. What I most regularly discover, however, is that my three are constantly changing. Perhaps this is due to situations, what I was thinking about at the time etc. Of course they’re all great values – I can’t imagine a world where I would independently choose to disregard love or any other one for that matter – so should it really bother me that much? But Eleanor encourages us to consider what has value for us.
I value authenticity, but certainly I have created false impression of myself before. I admire others who have a positive influence in people’s lives, and hope to do the same, but would I say that is critically more important than acting with compassion or knowledge? Integrity is an underlying must, but have I not benefited from the absence of integrity simply by my position of privilege and isn’t that the absence of justice, another deeply held value of mine? Can acting with empathy for others detract from my own happiness, and if so where should my priorities lie? You get the point.
I feel like I grew up a lot in several months since graduating from college, and one of the things I discovered in my new adult life is that you can’t always appease everyone. All of these values will not always benefit or support all the people you’re wanting to appease. More often than not, honesty is the best policy, but sometimes so is biting your tongue. To me, any successful human relationship requires trust, honesty, and communication. Now I’m telling myself that sometimes honesty can do more harm than good. How then, are we ever supposed to succeed at realizing what we value most?!
As I embark on my next adventure – a year of teaching English in Malaysia – I know that I will be faced with a lot of similar paradoxes. Learning to navigate them will require making a few mistakes and practicing a lot of patience. One of my many goals for this year is to discover what values are non-negotiable to me. I’m not limiting myself to three, and not saying that they can never change again, but that I want a better understanding of my own priorities. Only then can I apply them knowingly to my decisions, my actions, and my life in general.
The first week of orientation has been full of cultural education – both of the classroom and living kind – which has illustrated this value dispute at work. We have been told that Malaysia is a high context culture, meaning that whatever someone tells to us might not be what they mean at all. We’ve also learned that expressing emotions is not outwardly welcomed. Both will make values I have been consciously trying to hone – directness and openness – difficult to further.
Cultural exchanges are about compromise. I am prepared to deepen my beliefs in justice and compassion. I am preparing to loosen my hold on values that are yet to be challenged. Understanding this balance is what I think Eleanor meant when she said it’s what life is for. I am excited to navigate what will become of life in 2015.
Here’s to a year of discovery, not to mention a lot of good street food, new friends, and grand adventure!