Sometimes ideas for these inspirational pieces come from odd places. For example, today’s idea was inspired by the business section of the local newspaper. My local newspaper is a pretty good one. In fact, it enjoys some national stature, even though newspapers in general are going through some hard times. I am an avid reader of newspapers, but frankly I don’t expect to be inspired by the business section!
What also seemed odd to me was the randomness of this piece of inspiration. It was a single quotation at the top on page 3. It was a single sentence and told me it was from Michael Woodward, a psychologist and author. There was no reference to a book or article, but I expected to see a reference somewhere in an article in the business section. I could find nothing. Poor Michael Woodward stood alone at the top of page 3 with nary a clue who chose the quotation or why it was chosen. I concluded that it was perhaps chosen for me!
The sentence is simple, but quite significant for me. It reads: “Most people can’t articulate their core values and thus tend to make the same bad choices over and over again.” Although I never put it this way, the first half of the sentence resonates very well for me and the work I have been doing. Along with a co-author, I have written a couple books that basically focus on ‘core values.” I go with the much more ancient and classical language of “virtues.” But I suspect this is what Woodward means when he uses “core values” language.
Classically speaking, some of the core virtues that philosophers and theologians have identified are love, justice, courage, prudence and some others. These virtues guided human beings in how they see the world and how they act within the world. At heart, they are the building blocks of ethical actions. And these virtues become the building blocks of integrity and what we want to call, character.
Clearly the religious giants of the ages---Jesus, the Buddha, the saints---have all known and lived by their core values---their virtues. No one can explain Mother Teresa’s tireless work in Calcutta by any other means than her commitment to those core virtues. And clearly those virtues were part and parcel of her faith in God and desire to imitate the life and action of Jesus.
This brings me to the second half of Woodward’s quotation. Let’s assume he is correct that most people can’t articulate their core values. This tells me they can’t articulate them because they don’t know what those core values are or, worse yet, they don’t have any core values. According to Woodward, that has consequences. They make bad choices over and over again.
This would be funny, if it were not so sad! We all know folks who seem to make bad choices and then make bad choices over and over again. Sometimes the bad choices are pretty superficial and it does not matter too much. But other times, the bad choices bear huge consequences and we watch folks do it time after time. Why, we think to ourselves? Why do they keep doing it?
Woodward has his idea. It is because they can’t even tell you what their core values would have them do. This would be like a ship without a rudder. In contemporary terms, it is like the traveler who has no GPS or in older days, no map. When there are no core values, then we are more likely to be driven by self-interest or our own egos.
Self-interest is not inherently bad, but it certainly is not inherently good. If we do not have some core virtues, like love and justice, then self-interest likely will sacrifice the good for my interest. This is why Jesus and all his true followers knew love and justice as core virtues and, thus, were able to make good choices over and over again.
Essentially to follow the example of Jesus and other spiritual folks, there is a three-stage process. First, we need to have some core virtues (or values). Religious traditions suggest the time-honored ones like love, justice, courage, prudence and temperance. A long time ago Aristotle said a virtue is something, which always “aims at the good.” So by definition a virtue is good because it aims at the good.
Core virtues help me aim at the good. Hopefully, this limits the bad choices I make. And this leads to the second step. If I have those virtues in place and know them, then I can articulate them. Simply speaking, I know them and can tell you what they are.
Finally, there is the third and crucial step. I have virtues, I know them, but in the end I have to act on them. A virtue is not a virtue until it is an action. Before the action step, a virtue is simply an idea. To have core values, to know them and to act on them means I make good choices over and over again.