By Vincent Hao Chin, Jr.
Originally printed in the January-February 2005 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Chin, Vincent Hao. “Clarification and Integration of Values” Quest 93.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2005):24-29
The philosopher Will Durant wrote that wisdom is “seeing big things as big, and small things as small.” This implies that, first, we see reality objectively, rather than in a distorted way, and second, we’re able to see the relative importance of things.
Clarification of values means that we must review which values should guide our life. Value means what is worthwhile. If happiness is worthwhile, then it’s a value. If giving time to the family is worthwhile, then it’s a value. If playing basketball is worthwhile, then it’s a value.
The problem starts when these values conflict, not only with each other but also when they compete for our time and attention. Between family and basketball, which one is more important? Between honesty and earning more money, which one is more important?
When we don’t give time to the consideration of this point, then our conditioned values take over. They subconsciously dictate what is more important and what is less important. Thus, a father spends more time with his officemates than his family after work, although when he is later asked about it, he realizes that his family is more important to him than his friends.
Universal values are valued by all human beings due to the intrinsic nature of these values or by virtue of our being human beings.
Truth, for example, is valued for its own sake. We want to know the truth rather than be misled or be under an illusion. We prefer an illusion only when there is fear or there is psychopathology, in which case, we then put the value of avoidance of pain over that of truth. But even in the latter case, it’s not because we don’t prefer truth to illusion.
Happiness is sought by every human being because of our biological, psychological, and spiritual makeup. Even masochists inflict pain upon themselves because they derive happiness from it.
Schools universally espouse these values. But the problem is that schools and teachers don’t take them seriously. They recognize that they’re often impractical (such as honesty) and almost unattainable (such as happiness or inner peace). Thus, universal values are seen as ideals. Modern society gives evidence to the prevalence of values that contradict these universal values.
Cultural values are dependent on the social norms, religious beliefs and other environmental situations of people. Thus, in a society in which the ratio of males to females is just one to ten, polygyny may be legal and ethical; if the reverse, polyandry may be the legal and ethical custom. In some countries, divorce is permitted, in some it’s a sin.
Some cultural values are cruel and yet are tolerated or even promoted by members of the community. For almost a thousand years in China, prior to 1912, many women were subjected to the binding of the feet with cloth to make their feet small and dainty. This results in the breaking of the toes and the deformation of the entire foot. Girls from three years-old onwards may be subjected to this cruel practice by their mothers, and they undergo severe pain for two or more years. The practice was prohibited when Sun Yat Sen founded the Republic of China. Cultural values also change with time. What used to be unethical in one generation may no longer be so in the next.
Many of our attitudes and beliefs are derived from these cultural values and hence are conditioned values. Cultural values are not necessarily good for humanity simply because they have widespread acceptance. We need to review such values, because they can color the way we view life and the way we behave. They can create inner and outer conflicts.
The tendency to accumulate wealth, for example, is a very strong cultural conditioning derived from society’s measurement of success or from family expectations. We may not have fears or strong desires that impel accumulation, but our minds subconsciously assume that it is the preferred value, and because it’s an embedded or hidden assumption, it’s often unquestioned. It then exerts pressure on us and can become exceedingly influential or even overwhelming in view of its unquestioned validity. It can effectively overrule any decision we make to adhere to universal values.
Personal values are worthwhile to a particular individual and differ from person to person. Thus, some people may value art more than earning money and thus spend more time painting, even if it provides little income. Others may value money more than art and thus spend more time buying and selling paintings than being painters themselves.
Personal values are largely subjective and are neither ethical nor unethical except when they go against one of the universal values. Thus, whether we prefer chocolate or vanilla is a subjective preference. But whether we eat the flesh of a mammal can be an ethical issue, because it now touches on the pain and suffering caused by the slaughtering of animals for food.
It’s important to realize that inner peace is not possible if our personal values contradict one or more universal values. True inner fulfillment eludes us because we won’t be able to integrate the higher and lower aspects of our being.
If I do an injustice to someone while trying to earn money, I won’t have inner peace. I’ll feel insecure. More important, I intuitively know that it’s a wrong thing to do. This sense of unethical action doesn’t come from cultural values but is due to an inner sense of right and wrong that we have, regardless of our culture.
Thus, it’s important to explore a way of life in which universal values are in harmony with our personal values.
In our lectures, we ask the audience (some of whom are schoolteachers) who among them believes that honesty is the best policy. Perhaps half of them or less raise their hands. When we ask how many of them consider that honesty is practical, usually one or two or none at all raise their hands.
We’re facing here a fundamental contradiction between our principles and our daily reality. It seems impractical to be honest or to be truly principled. We believe that we can’t rise in our careers if we’re honest or if we don’t compromise with the demands of the environment that compel us to lie. Or we can’t win an election if we’re too honest. Or become a successful salesperson unless we exaggerate or misrepresent the product.
How true is this widespread impression?
Many years ago, I read an autobiographical book of Joe Girard, who was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Top Salesman in the World for at least seven consecutive years. Girard was a car and truck salesman. Sometimes customers would come to him to buy a special kind of vehicle that his manufacturer didn’t produce. He would tell the customer that his company doesn’t have that vehicle, but that it’s available from another manufacturer (a competitor), and Girard would even refer the customer to the competitor’s dealer. But he would also tell the customer that if in the future the customer needs anything that Girard has, then they should call Girard. He would then give the customer his card.
Such honesty had an effect on potential customers. People from across the continent called Girard if he could supply them with what they needed, and if Girard had it, he stood a good chance of getting the order, because he had been honest with the customer. Girard didn’t rise to the top through insincerity and manipulative tactics.
I knew a lady entrepreneur who was one of the materiel vendors of a huge public works project in the Philippines. The public works buyers discovered that among their suppliers, this lady was apparently the only one who didn’t overprice or connive with other suppliers to pad their quoted prices. In time, the buyers developed so high a trust in this lady that they would ask her to help them check the prices of items they were buying. Needless to say, this lady received large orders from this public works project, simply because she was honest and trustworthy.
One young public official whom I know very well took the road less traveled and was determined not to succumb to corruption when he was elected mayor of a city in the Philippines. Group after group came to him offering regular amounts of money if he would just agree to look the other way. Time and again he politely declined, until the syndicates found that they were facing a mayor who was dead earnest about his principles. Unlike other politicians, he didn’t include journalists and media people in his payroll just to ensure that they said good things about him or to be silent about anything they observed to be wrong. It didn’t take long for the people to realize that they had in their midst a truly honest official. They gave him their trust. He won by a landslide in every reelection, with little campaign funds to sustain him. In one election, he ran unopposed. Three years after he stepped down as mayor, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award (the Asian Nobel Prize) for government service, the only local official ever given such a recognition.
I can cite many examples of people who, when they’re clear about their values and have developed mature skills in management and interpersonal relationships, excel in their respective fields and reach levels that are unattainable by people who employ deception or are insincere. There are millions of politicians, but only those who are principled earn the name statesman. There are many so-called religious people, but only a small percentage are called spiritual.
Stephen Covey, in his best—selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, noted that the truly successful individuals are those who are character-ethic oriented rather than the personality-ethic oriented. The lives of character-ethic oriented people are guided by principles rather than by conveniences, by what is just and compassionate rather than what is selfish. The personality-ethic oriented individuals may bribe or be insincere in order to achieve a certain goal, but their success will be blocked by walls that can only be surmounted by adherence to universal principles. They may soon discover that they have paid for their short-sighted “success” with a high price.
VALUES IN DAILY LIFE
The test of the practicality of universal values lies in our daily life applications, which I will presently explore.
Most parents lie to their children, and many do so habitually. Why is dishonesty necessary with our own children? Why can’t we even be truthful with the people closest to us? Many parents justify their dishonesty by saying that they tell white lies—for the good of their children. But I wonder what is good about having parents who can’t be trusted?
This is a typical example: A young son approaches his mother and asks for money to buy something from the store. The mother feels that her son doesn’t need it, so she says that she has no money. The boy is disappointed. As he goes into another room, he hears his father ask for money from his mother, and the mother replies, “Just get it from my brown purse.”
If you were the son, what would you feel? How will you take your mother’s words in the future? Do you think that the white lie of the mother was worth the potential resentment and distrust felt by the son?
Part of the problem is that the mother didn’t realize that it was possible for her to say no to her son and to give her sincere reasons without necessarily creating resentment in her son. This option would have been less harmful than lying, even if the boy felt disappointed with her “no.”
To be able to be sincere requires the capacity to communicate assertively and sincerely. We must also have developed the self-awareness to be able to face discomfort in our feelings. Your friend comes grinning and proudly shows you her new hairstyle. She asks you, “What do you think of my hair?” You happen to think that it doesn’t look good at all. In fact, you think she looks ugly with it. What will you say?
In many cultures, it’s proper to say, “It looks OK” or “It looks nice,” even if it’s a blatant lie.
By learning how to communicate assertively, we can have a better idea of how to give feedback without being judgmental, to speak truthfully without unnecessarily hurting the other person.
TAKING BITE—SIZE EFFORTS
In the quest for self-transformation, we need to experiment with daily opportunities for the integration of universal values in our life. Do it at a comfortable pace.
For example, try bite-size honesty. Using assertive communication skills, take risks in being truthful in small daily things. With these modest victories, we can gradually find it easier to be truthful in many things in daily life—with our children, spouse, friends, peers, office mates, etc.
Experiment with bite-size justice and fairness. When we forego an unfair advantage, we may find that we can take the apparent sacrifice. It also feels good deep inside. Again with such small victories, we will find it is no longer difficult to be just when it comes to large matters.
Do bite-size kindnesses every day. Say “thank you” to people whom you don’t usually thank for small favors, like passing the salt. It gradually becomes a habit. We no longer even think of it. The “thank you” just automatically comes out of our lips whenever anybody does any small thing for us.
CLARIFYING PERSONAL VALUES
Many of us go through life not knowing that our personal values are not really our own. They are just reflections of the demands of our surroundings: our parents, friends, society, what people will say, etc. We begin to wonder why we’re not happy in our careers or why we easily get angry when we’re performing our work.
Winnie worked as a legal researcher in one of the best law centers in the country for about twenty years. When I met her, she said that she was due to retire in two years. Seeing that she was still young, I asked her what she planned to do after her retirement, thinking that she would set up her own law practice. She said, “I’ll open up a dress shop.” I was caught by surprise, and I couldn’t say anything for a few moments. I asked her why. She said, “Ever since I was young, I had always wanted to design dresses and make them. Now that I’m about to retire, this is the thing that I really want to do.”
“Then why did you become a lawyer?” I asked.
“When I was entering college, my uncle wouldn’t finance my studies unless I took up law. So I did.”
It’s been more than ten years since that evening, and I haven’t met Winnie again. I often wonder what she felt throughout the twenty years when she was doing legal work. I wonder what she’s doing now. I wish that she’s happy in her new career, doing creative designs.
Would you and I be willing to devote more than twenty years of our lives to something that we didn’t really love? Lack of clarity of our personal values can condemn us to a life that we don’t cherish, to a work that we don’t find fulfilling.
It’s essential for each one of us to clarify what is truly meaningful in our lives—things that we would like to live and even die for.
To help us attain such clarity, we must try to answer two questions. For some of us, they may be difficult to answer. Nevertheless, do your best. You can always change them later. I suggest that you write down your answers, not just think about them. Writing them will force you to be specific and to see your present hierarchy of personal values more clearly. The first question is, What are three things that you would like to do or achieve or become before you die?
Write them down in the order of their importance.
The second question is, What are three things that you would like to do or accomplish within the next three years?
In answering the first question, you’re really searching for an answer that doesn’t come from your outer self, which is your logical mind or emotions. When your outer self answers, you might reply according to the values of society, which may not resonate with your innermost self. You want the answer to come from somewhere deeper within you.
For this reason, it’s important to review the list after a week, a month, and a year. See whether your answers are still the same. If at these different times your list is the same, you may be reasonably sure that you’re hearing the answer of your deeper self. If the list keeps changing, then it means that you’re listening to your outer self.
Your answer to the second question helps you determine whether you will be spending your coming years meaningfully. If what you do for the next three years has got nothing to do with your lifetime list, then decide whether you’re doing the right things for the next three years or, on the other hand, whether your lifetime list needs to be revised.
Check also whether your personal values are in harmony with universal values. If not, review them and see whether deep within yourself they are really what you want in life.
INTEGRATION OF VALUES
The above discussion and exercises constitute the first, but necessary, stage in the integration of values and behavior.
1. Physico-emotional conditionings: those involving habits and emotional reactions, such as fears, resentments, etc.2. Mental conditionings: those molded by cultural values, such as the measurement of success and failure and philosophy of life. They create preferences for lifestyles, modes of action, etc. This aspect is related to a review of one’s map of reality.
When true clarity is achieved and conditionings are comprehensively reviewed, then values can be fully integrated into our life with minimal difficulty.