I’ve been thinking quite a bit about values lately and what matters most to me deep in my guts. What am I on this earth for? What is actually important? How meaningful are the things that sometimes seem worthwhile but that tend to cause suffering? Some people put values into the context of, what do we worship? Where do we place our faith? What do we make our Higher Powers? Basically, it is as a simple as, what do we really want out of life and with our own little lives?
Some value fame, fortune, beauty, popularity. Others simplicity, solitude, quiet. For many, success and winning are up there, achieving dreams, creating, building, growing. Is there a right or wrong? Not necessarily (although valuing hate and fear might not be such a great idea.) I know that I have at various times valued knowledge and education, the arts, family. I have also been in darker places and put far too much stock in money, image, appearance, thinking success and perfection in these areas would make me happy, grant me inner peace. (Didn’t happen.) I still value education and knowledge, and to a degree I care about a healthy self-image and comfort in life, but these are no longer the tip top, and I find that they tend to work out naturally when I place my energy on a larger, more intangible value.
I think our truest value shines through when we don’t go looking. It just bursts, often through tears, joy, laughter, some force of energy. For me, it tends to emerge through music, literature, writing, prayer, and physical movement. The deepest, most primordial sensation is there beneath all of my layers of thinking and analyzing, down in the bones, and it covers everything else.
I remember clearly sitting in a hotel room with my parents during Boulder parent weekend back in 2003, sobbing uncontrollably. I was very aware that I was depressed and troubled and probably an alcoholic. Eighteen years old and incredibly lost. I felt wracked with shame, fear, guilt, and despair. And despite being in a room with parents who loved me, I felt alone.
My step-dad asked me a simple, gentle question: “What matters to you? What do you want?” I will never forget my answer. “I love Jackson (my younger brother, who was only four at the time) and I just want to be there for him. I just want to love. I just want to love.”
It might sound a tad melodramatic or reductive, but I really believe I was speaking my heart’s truest truth and that the love I felt toward my young child/brother was symbolic of the desire for something innocent and pure, something brimming with goodness. This is still what comes forth when I am very quiet, when I sift through all the other bullshit that I think holds more weight. I just want to love. I just want to love. Love, perhaps, and I mean real love, is what I value most. From it, comes everything else.
What is love, exactly? (Cue the Night at the Roxbury song and dance.) How do we define it? What does it really feel and look like? There are many answers. There are endless expressions. For me, love is an experience of spirit and authenticity that eradicates anger and fear. It is without conditions. It is our essence. It is larger than beauty (though it is beautiful), larger than wealth, than health, than ideologies and systems, than physical freedom. It is unbreakable, inherent, and deeply within a living thing. It is not necessarily taught, although it is certainly nurtured. It is a movement toward gentleness, kindness, service, and joy. It defies all identity and separateness. It is the truest experience and emotion and decision and action. It is everything.
But it is not easy.
There are one hundred thousand reasons we can come up with to not stand in love, to not give love, to not receive it, to push it away. We can always attempt to justify anger, judgement, and hatred to some degree, on both small and large scales. Some of us carry incredible burdens. Some of us are deeply wounded. Some of us are even right. Perfecting our love, then, becomes a practice, because it is in living creatures to defend and shut down, to fight, flee, or freeze.
And sometimes we must. We are not here to be doormats or stand willingly in the face of danger to get torn apart and gobbled up. We are allowed to protect ourselves. But when the threat is over (and for many of us today the threats are minuscule or nonexistent or show up primarily in our minds) what are we to do? It can be tempting to withhold love from where it is not given.
My understanding now is to give it even more, and not from a codependent place of trying to get something, but as a blessing. A gift. Lighting someone’s candle does not distinguish our own. Sometimes we must walk away and stay away and try to love from afar. This is compassion. This is service. Nelson Mandela had every excuse in the book to hate and seek revenge. As did Martin Luther King, Jr. As did Jesus. They chose love and forgiveness.
I spent a good portion of my younger life in a defensive stance. I was so sure that the world was out to get me and that I had to protect myself from imminent danger. I felt consumed with fear and anger. I often did not trust and saw darkness at every turn. I think many of us come face to face with this experience, especially as we grow out of childhood and lose our innocence; we see that the world holds many horrors. Thus, we prioritize. Holden Caulfield, in my opinion, wasn’t completely crazy; he just felt too deeply the sadness of seeing that pain is real, life is unfair and unpredictable, children grow up and turn cynical, angry, hurtful.
But it isn’t only this way. The world is an imperfect place full of imperfect people, but we can still value Love. Despite the fact that, yes, there were circumstances in childhood and adolescence that caused my heart to close, plenty of what I feared never happened. Despite the fact that the world tells us daily of its despair and tragedy, we can still look in front of us for the good. There is always good in front of us.
Good defense predicts danger, but sometimes the danger doesn’t come. I was often reacting from fear rather than responding with curiosity and an open mind. I have had to practice retraining my approach to life and shifting my perception. I have learned that whatever is lacking in any situation is my job to bring. If I feel a lack of Love, I must bring it. If there is fear, I must bring courage. When feeling judged, I must accept that I am likely judging myself. My deepest value is Love, and my deepest practice is continually, daily, over and over and over again, perfecting that love. Opening my heart. Understanding and forgiving. Bringing forth light and goodness. Amending. Being kind. Never making my mind up about anything or anyone. Allowing others to change. Always attempting to forgive and not seek revenge or the perpetuation of the sad story.
We live in a climate today where it feels as if we were to stand in such a value, people might call us quitters. Or ignorant. Burying our heads in the sand. Not fighting the good fight. I respectfully disagree. I have erred on the side of standing in such ideas, believing a place of love to be naive or lacking knowledge, education, or a pursuit of justice.
If anything, my acquiring of knowledge (which I still acquire and for which I still hold reverence) always leads me back to understanding that simply knowing does not create peace. Nor does saying something is a certain way. Life is bad in this way? Ok, maybe it is. Then what? Do we fight what is bad with more badness? With anger and hatred and blame and sides? Do we attempt to ameliorate those who promote evil with more hatred and call that “having a voice?” The greatest irony of those fighting for tolerance is how intolerant they can be. No thank you. I choose love. I choose peace. I choose understanding. I choose to take care of myself, do what feels good, and seek to help others, especially those in front of me. I choose mercy, not justice.
It is an experiment, to live this way, and not often the instinct. But since I have gone down this path with my head and heart, attempting to solely value love (and forgiveness) above all else, my life has been undoubtedly better. I have laid down the sword of anger and trying to be on the “right” side of anything. You might disagree with me, and that is fine. I know that place. I am still often there, all the time. But it is never too late to wake up and love, every morning, every moment, or once and and for all.