Meaning & Value
I had to run errands today, and it's finally sunny. The temperature is still chilly and spring is struggling to settle in, but in the greenhouse of my car with the sun streaming through the windows, it was pretty comfy.
My first stop of the day was a visit to a local community herbalist friend/advisor who is helping me with supplemental supports for my physical health. She's that rare person in this area - someone who didn't grow up here but moved here as an adult. She's an incredible asset to our community and is becoming a valued friend. Check out her work at her non-profit Trillium Center.
We had an interesting conversation which gave me much to think about for the rest of my errands. We were talking about building community through our interactions with others; how every person's individual skills and interests contribute to the health of the community and how their needs are then met by other members of the community. She told me how, in ancient Chinese culture, people did not pay their healers until they were actually better. Instead of expecting payment for help when people were at their worst, doctors treated community members, and then were payed when people got healthier.
This got me thinking about how we place meaning on certain things, like money. It's just paper and ink, but if you offered most people a one-dollar bill, or a one hundred-dollar bill, they'd pick the $100 because we've assigned it a greater value. Culturally, we value money pretty highly, and we've assigned it lots of meaning: status, power, comfort, achievement. But we've also made it such an integral part of our lives that we struggle to provide even the basics of life without it. I think one of the reasons I'm so drawn to the local-foods, community-builders, natural-healers of the world is that they redefine cultural meaning and place their value in slightly different places.
I see meaning as the substance of the thing; an indirect expression of something that is mutable and may not be inherent, or immediately seen. Flowers mean spring, beauty, nature, biology, food. Cars mean freedom, technology, power, pollution, a way to get from point A to point B. Family means love, support, blood connection, spiritual connection, violence, trauma, pain. Guns mean food, safety, independence, self-reliance, protection, horror, death, pain, suffering, oppression. The same thing can mean different things to different people and different cultures.
On top of that, we assign a value based on our individual perspectives and experiences. Cars are a good example. In cities, cars can often be a nuisance. Once you've paid for parking and maintenance and fees and upkeep and fuel and the hassle of sitting in lines of traffic, it isn't worth it to a lot of people to own a car. It's cheaper and easier to ride public transportation and rent a car if you want to take a road trip. It always freaks me out when people tell me they don't own a car! In rural America where I live, cars are a necessity. Public transportation doesn't exist. We don't have buses or passenger trains. There is one cab company in the county and it's expensive and time-consuming to get one because you have to call ahead and schedule your ride. Out here, cars are freedom and independence, and vital to being employed. We highly value having a vehicle of our own, and the maintenance and expense is just an accepted consequence of being able to get around and take care of the minutiae of life. Personally, I just plain love to drive. Businesses and people are so spread out here that I enjoy driving the scenic backroads and taking my good sweet time, thinking about life and admiring the views as I move from place to place.
After all this ruminating on meaning and value (while driving, ha!) I started asking myself some questions: What have I assigned meaning to? Does it reflect what I value? Are my actions and values in alignment?
It's worth noting at this point that a robust science of happiness has sprung up in the last 20 years, with Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman as one of the leaders. I love everything he writes, and his books are very readable. There's a specialized mental health branch called Positive Psychology, and I have benefited greatly from it myself, and highly recommend it to others. Check out the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania for more.
One of the significant findings of this research is that people are happiest when their behavior and choices align with their values. For me, quitting my job and sacrificing income in order to focus on being physically and emotionally healthier was a painful but necessary step to align myself with my values. Even though it's meant a lot of changes to our household budget, I am getting so much healthier, and I'm able to spend more time with my family and friends, and engaging with the community, all of which are among my top values.
I challenge you to ask yourself the following: what meaning do you assign to the things in your life? What are your values? Are your choices bringing you closer to living your values or pushing you farther away from them? They're big questions, but the answers can have a profound impact on your overall happiness.