Cage Match of Values
“Two may enter, but only one may leave.” The image of a cage-match is older even than the post-apocalyptic landscape that line comes from, stemming perhaps all the way back to the myth of Cain and Abel, the first murder. There’s something intrinsically seductive about a simplistic binary choice. It speaks to our need for quick answers. Unfortunately, like any siren song, the binary quality hides an ocean of possibilities. As it is in the ways we may worship a deity, so it is in relation to our Values.
How often have you felt caught between two different choices? Ever been confronted with the desire to support one Value (say ‘career success’) and feel doing so would get in the way of supporting another Value (say ‘family’)? Life is often about choices, sometimes difficult ones, but the struggle here is made all the more difficult precisely because the Values are considered with such an adversarial framework.
Multiple Ways of Support
How this happens is largely due to what I’ll call ‘the tyranny of outcome.’ Meet someone new and the first question is often “what do you do?” When judging someone, it is the immediate behavior we look at, often without concern for context or intent (unless it’s about judging our own behavior, then suddenly and often self-servingly context matters, but that’s another point altogether). That process of judgment is at the heart of our experience of being overwhelmed and/or trapped in a spiral of self-doubt, depression and anxiety. It is based on the false notion that in any given situation there was or is only one behavior possible to support what we care about. This limited vision of behavior, as if thoughts and emotions aren’t actions as well, blinds us to how often similar intent and shared Values get supported through many different ways.
How do you express yourself to ‘family,’ ‘intimate partner’ and ‘co-worker’? Is it always the same way? I certainly hope not, such would be rather dull and not support how relationships grow and change with time. Ever notice how different people in relationships of ‘family,’ ‘intimacy’ and ‘work’ show their care/concern in different ways than you? Who hasn’t heard some version of the phrase “I could never express myself that way”? Values are what we care about, but they need not be supported in exactly the same way all the time. We do this automatically anyway, it is only when we get flustered and overwhelmed with a seeming impossible social hurdle that we forget our lives are full of behavioral variations.
More than One
Once space is made to slow down and appreciate our ability to support our Values in many different ways, the metaphor of a cage-match starts to seem problematic. To finally dismiss it altogether, we have only to recognize how we care about more than one Value at any given time.
We are constantly having to make choices about what Value to support over another. We do this nearly effortlessly precisely because we intuitively know three things:
- Our behavior quite often supports more than one Value at any given time, it is only our immediate awareness that makes it appear as if there’s only one in mind.
- Making a choice to support one Value does not mean we no longer care about another Value.
- The choice being made does not remove our ability to shift our priorities at another day and time, perhaps even in the very next moment given to us.
The metaphor of a Value cage-match supports a vision of our humanity that is unhelpful and often destructive. ‘Honor’ without ‘camaraderie’ forgets ‘team.’ ‘Truth’ without ‘humility’ leads to fundamentalism. ‘Self-care’ without ‘social awareness’ leads to pathological narcissism.
When confronted with a simple dualistic choice it is best, if possible in the moment, to pause and reflect on what else you care about in the current situation. We are simply not creatures constrained to a singular way of living our lives and our ability/struggle to do so is found in the many Values at the heart of of who we are.