30 Days, Day 5: Beliefs — Core Values

This is a slightly edited repost of my previous essay on this subject that I wrote for the International Pagan Values Blogging Month. I considered making a different post on the subject, but this one still feels right.

Part of the problem with talking about values is that it can quickly get overly specific. One virtue frequently depends on another, and to quote Michael Murphy (as quoted by Walsh in The World of Shamanism), Every virtue requires other virtues to complete it. While we all agree in living ethically we don’t all agree what those ethics entail.

A little over a year ago in a job interview I was asked what core values I clung to: what values that were deeply personal to me. What were, in essence, my core values by which I lived my life. It is one of the more unusual questions I’ve been asked, and my answer really ahd more to do with meta-values. Values from which everything else is subordinate to. The three I gave were:

  • All Knowledge is Worth Having
  • Self-Honesty
  • Kaizen

All Knowledge is Worth Having

This is the famous quote of Anafiel Delaunay in Jacqueline Carey’s excellent Kushiel’s Legacy series. Basically it comes down to this: There is no piece of knowledge that is so obscure and so arcane that it is not worth knowing. This isn’t to say that there aren’t opportunity costs involved, but what turns out to be of interest and of use later on is never clear when the knowledge becomes available.

This goes beyond the base memorization of facts. Facts are but one form of knowledge: there is also knowledge of the self and knowledge of skills. As the character of Russell learns in the movie Up: The wilderness, no matter how much you think you know about it, can be rather wild and will exceed your expectations. Yet this counts as knowledge as well.

It is also true that the important thing is knowing how to think, how to analyze, and how–ultimately–to learn. This is also part of knowledge and part of the process of acquiring it.

Every few months I see comments about how some group of engineering students (frequently Software Engineering) take too much math in school, when in truth those math classes are some of the most valuable they will ever take. They say that they will never use those classes in the real world and–in a very narrow view–they are right. The trick is that–as the saying goes–I advise my students to listen carefully when they take their last mathematics class, they may be able to hear the sound of closing doors. Not because knowing how to take a line integral in a complex plane comes up so frequently in my day-to-day job, but because the thought process and skill set that were acquired by taking such classes goes well beyond the base subject matter that was covered.

The same is true of Philosophy and is found in many other fields of study: the thought process and skills you gain while learning is more important than the material you cover.

This isn’t to say that the material can’t also be important: my first professional job out of college involved some of those areas of knowledge that people said I would never have a use for.

So we can say with some certainty that knowledge is a lifelong process and not a set of concise products that can be memorized and regurgitated. It doesn’t come down to the classes you take, or the field you are in, or a table of numbers (though all of these can be useful and help you on the way), but in how you seek and gather and what you learn while on the path.

It is important to seek, it is important to learn, and it is important not to dismiss some tidbit of information or some skill just because you cannot presently see the use for it.

Self-Honesty

Loki is one of many teachers that tell us that if there is one person in all of the Nine Worlds that you cannot afford to lie to, it is yourself.

Honesty is a funny concept. On the one hand, when you lie to others, the question is why do you feel that it is necessary to lie to them? This is part of what Ayn Rand was saying when she commented that:

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked… The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on… There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.

The so-called white lie is told to keep the peace but serves instead to distort reality, because reality is not palatable a false, illusory reality is set up instead. In telling this white lie you are saying that peace of mind is more important than what has actually true.

Besides, it is a pain to keep it all straight.

On the other hand, it is easy to pretend to being honest while in truth infringing on the boundaries of others. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying that one is just being honest when in truth it is simply a mechanism for making the other person uncomfortable (e.g., by sharing too much information), or talking instead of listening.

It can also, when poorly phrased or when not combined with mindfulness, be used as an inadvertent (or worse, deliberate) weapon in the worst possible ways. It can lead to what are called you statements instead of I statements, said in the name of being honest.

There is also power in deliberately lying. A lie–told mindfully–can be used to illustrate the truth or protect oneself from harm. A lie by omission (especially of the form of simply stopping short or not bringing something up) can be used to give yourself time to work things out within yourself before telling the truth, to play nice in a social setting for the benefit of a third party, or temporarily avoid hitting people’s triggers. Lying can be used as a tool by spies in order to gain information which is vital to saving lives, and denial and deception techniques have a long history in warfare.

The sagas are similarly filled with examples of people or gods being dishonest or–at a minimum–deflecting the truth slightly for a greater gain. These range from Odin lying about his identity when traveling to Egil pretending to be more drunk than he was, presumably in part to flush out an enemy. We also see in history everything from women lying about their sex in order to serve on the battlefield, or lying about their marital status to help avoid being raped, to being used to protect innocent lives in the Underground Railroad.

The difference here is in what the lie is used for, and whether it is told mindfully. While having a greater end is frequently important, we don’t want to get in to a question of ends justifying means and what really matters here is whether the lie is mindfully said, or whether it is said unconsciously. Whether it is said because I am denying reality, or while fully cognizant of the actuality of the situation.

Thus while honesty may be a virtue, it isn’t an absolute one and is one that must be balanced with other virtues when dealing with others. But self-honesty, being mindful of yourself and refusing to tell even the slightest lie to yourself to make yourself feel better, is another matter entirely. This is one area that I believe we cannot afford to skimp in, and one area whether the word radical is not merely warranted, but something to encourage.

There are reasons that might justify lying to others, but lies to yourself will always come back to haunt you in the end.

Kaizen

Kaizen (改善, literally “improvement”) is something I have talked about before. It means continuous improvement in all areas of your life. In Walsh’s The World of Shamanism he comments that in Western Philosophy we frequently make the mistake of believing that attention cannot be continuously sustained and he points out how in contemplative disciplines attention must be sustained.

Even if we cannot achieve the ultimate goal of perfectly sustained concentration, we can work toward it. We can build skills and slowly improve ourselves, so that even if we don’t–or even can’t–get there, we can improve ourselves and our abilities dramatically while working toward that as a goal.

This is part of the point of kaizen: It isn’t in being something great, it is in the process of continually improving ourselves in small ways. So I can’t be the person I want to be tomorrow, but can I be a better person tomorrow than I am today? That is, in the end, what matters and–after thousands of days–maybe I will become that person, or the person I wanted to be turns out not to be that great after all, but regardless of what happened to my goal, I will be a much better person for the journey.

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