The last post explored the futility of seeking lasting satisfaction through work, love, and other worldly pursuits. Recognizing this dilemma, we might ask: If satisfaction is evanescent, why do anything at all? Why not just refuse to participate?
But even stasis leaves an imprint, so we need to be sure of ourselves before rejecting society and its activities. We cannot avoid marking the world; our freedom lies in selecting how. We are destined to work and to love, but our decisions direct our efforts and affection. Some strive toward selfish ends and love narrowly. Others behave generously and adore the entire biosphere.
All of which raises another question: How do we optimize our choices?
According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) , which I discussed in the post before last, a value is an aspect of life we want to nurture. Examples include: family, friendship, work, spirituality, aesthetics, and play. Note the generality of these categories, and the diversity of manifestation. Family might mean tending children, parents, or pets. Work might be pursued by performing surgery or serving soup at a shelter. Spirituality could suggest Roman Catholic mass or contemplation under a tree.
A value is the direction, while a goal is a destination. As an analogy, I might choose to head west from my home next to San Francisco Bay. Perhaps I’d drive an hour to reach the Pacific Ocean. Or I could sail a boat to Hawaii. Or maybe I’d fly to Tokyo. “Going West” could be achieved in any number of ways.
It is possible to pursue values ineffectively. One doesn’t make westward progress by driving from here to Mexico. While many of us want to help those in trouble, we sometimes end up doing harm rather than good. Mindfully listening to someone in pain offers support and compassion. But advice, while usually well-intentioned, is often poorly received.
We can always progress toward our values, no matter our limitations. To head west, all I need to do is walk a little westward. One can be an affectionate spouse (value) with a simple smile (goal).
Note that a value is never exhausted. I could travel west forever, round and round the globe. Supporting our friends (a value) is not something we finish, the way we might complete an errand for someone ill (a goal). There is always more work to be done and fun to be had. Of course, at some point we run out of energy and time. We die. So pursuit of values ends, but not in the sense of polishing off a task.
Nor is our quest toward value about leaving a permanent mark; all our works eventually will be forgotten. We build meaning into our lives for its own sake.
Look at the big picture: the sun will expand as it burns up its fuel. Eventually, “the Earth will plunge into the core of the red giant sun and be vaporized.” Science fiction notwithstanding, there is little chance that humanity will escape physically to other planets, except perhaps as well-shielded, frozen embryos. All the glorious work of civilization will be lost, at least in material terms.
To the cynical, this might seem futile, or even absurd. Why strive, day after day, if all comes to naught? It sounds like Sisyphus, ever pushing his boulder uphill only to watch it roll down again. But isn’t this the nature of life? Each spring new flowers bloom that are destined to wither and die. The promise of every birth ends in death sooner or later. The cycle of fertilization, germination, maturation, and deterioration never ceases. All that activity generates the lush, fecund beauty of our world.
Albert Camus concludes his classic, The Myth of Sisyphus, with these words: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” His meaning is more bereft of optimism than mine (he is arguing for absurdity, which precludes hope), but the reasoning is similar: fulfillment demands we move something, despite inevitable collapse and decay.
Maybe our endeavors will be preserved as cosmic memory, embedded in a quantal microstructure (or the Mind of God, depending on your preferred terminology). But we don’t need to believe this to continue our lives. We romance, raise children, build bridges, and play music because Life asks this of us.
A necessary event in the Universe’s formation was what’s called symmetry breaking. I have only a vague notion of what that means, but it shows that we live in a fundamentally fractured world. The brokenness breeds vitality. We pick up the pieces not because there’s hope of repair, but because we love them.
Work in support of values is an exercise in fertility, not futility. It’s not endless toil; it’s eternal dance.
So how does one reconcile this with the dissatisfaction inherent in worldly pursuits? Here again, we distinguish between values and goals. We can pursue values without concern for recognition, accumulation, satiation, affection, or excitement. They fulfill because they are worthy in themselves, not because of their fruits. Goals, on the other hand, are ‘stickier.’ They can be judged as successes or failures. We tend to get attached to their outcome. They draw us into the cycle of stimulation, disenchantment, and suffering.
In a broken world, we value healing despite our inevitable defeat by death. We further the value of health without chasing the goal of immortality. Such is the paradox of wise living.
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Last reviewed: 2 Jul 2012