The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Values. You’ve heard the word before. We all have — so often that nearly every trace of meaningful content has been sucked clean out of it. There’s been endless talk about family values and American values, religious values and humanitarian values, conservative values and liberal values. Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.
Values-conflicts are reputed to be at the core of the so-called “culture war.” Assuming there is a culture war, this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, people feel strongly about their values. Never mind that very few can tell you what a “value” is.
Contrary to popular opinion, values are not beliefs, religious doctrines, philosophical tenets, or political positions. A “value” is exactly what its name implies: an estimation of worth. It’s an assumption – usually an unexamined assumption – about reality. It frequently has very little to do with careful analysis or conscious thought processes. Quite often it’s absorbed by osmosis from the surrounding culture. Think and believe what you will; your values are another question altogether. They’re subconscious and reflexive. They’re the “solid” stuff you grab for when the rug gets pulled out from under you. They’re the refuge you seek when the house catches fire or the sky begins to fall. They’re the ground floor, the bottom line.
In the 1870s the United States government did not hesitate to lie, cheat, steal, kill, break promises, disregard treaties, and destroy an entire culture simply in order to accommodate the overpowering lust of white Americans for Black Hills gold. At the beginning of the trouble the Lakota, to whom the Black Hills had been sacred from time immemorial, found the whole thing amusing. They couldn’t understand the European obsession with the “yellow metal.” Sure, it was pretty. But valuable? They didn’t see how — the stuff was neither edible nor useful. So they laughed at the white man’s folly. But the joke fell flat when they found themselves forcibly driven from their ancestral lands by wave after wave of prospectors, settlers, and bluecoats. The Sioux leaders hadn’t realized that something else lay hidden behind the glitter: the promise of power and wealth.
That’s the way it works with values. The metal, the coin, the currency is nothing in itself. It can assume a wide variety of forms and be called by any number of names: gold, silver, or brass; houses, cars, or lands; liberty, equality, fraternity; patriotism, democracy, team-spirit; Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity. From a certain point of view, these words and the concepts they represent are mere arbitrary labels. They’re neither here nor there. In the final analysis, it’s what’s inside that counts – the elusive intangibles that lurk behind and beneath the “yellow metal.”
And that’s not always easy to discern. For a value is usually something so elemental, so primeval, so visceral that you can hardly put a name on it. It escapes your notice because it lies concealed within the thing you think you really want and cherish. It’s like water to a fish. It’s like the air in which we live and move and have our being. It’s like the trees that can’t be seen for the forest.
Here, with this very basic realization, is where our pilgrim journey has to begin.