Getting holiday cards in the mail this year was a tricky experience; it’s not that they didn’t bring me joy (they did), but I’d be lying if I said that the images of smiling families and the dispatches from regular old life didn’t sting.
It’s complicated, the way we share our lives, image-saturated both literally (we are flooded with visuals to a historically unprecedented degree) and thematically (this has, you could argue, led to an obsession with public-facing appearance or “how things look” on the surface/for certain media platforms). I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, or that hadn’t already occurred to me, either, but the difference between a theoretical observation and felt-in-the-body-like-a-gut-punch is, well…it’ll leave you breathless.
One of the practices that I adopted from Jill, my I-don’t-know-what-to-call-her, is a core values journaling exercise. She’s used it for years with participants in her American Leadership Forum classes, and I loved the exercise so much that I adapted it to use with middle and then high school students. My practice has always been to journal along with my classes, to write as they write, to engage with whatever it is I am asking them to engage with – or, if they are engaging with a prompt I’ve already engaged with, to write something of meaning for myself as they write.
This exercise is designed to do what it sounds like: to help participants identify and reflect on their core values. Not the values that have been placed on them by society or their families of origin, not necessarily even the values that have gotten them where they are in that moment, but the values that they themselves wish to live by going forward. They get to choose. Which values do they wish to hold at the center?
The last time I sat down with students (back in Arizona, back in 2021) to do this exercise, I was clear that the values that had long been my trademarks—love, generosity, and joy—still rang true but would not get me wherever it was that I needed to go next. It’s not that I planned to, or did, give up on love, generosity, or joy, but rather that I felt like I had really learned how to integrate those values and their lessons into my daily living. What I found myself craving were the edges that some new language could bring. And so, honesty, humility, authenticity became my touchstones.
If you’ve done any personal/spiritual/growth work ever, you know how this goes; the second you declare This is what I’d like to work on, and life/god/universe/spirit says Okay! Here are a half-a-dozen really intense places in your life to do that!
So, that’s where I am right now. It’s all well and good to declare some core values on a piece of paper, and a whole other thing to truly actualize them when shit gets real. When the temptation to care about how things look, to wonder who may be invested in the she said/she said, to worry that my life seems like a disappointment or a failure or an embarrassment no longer worthy of a holiday card.
Only, how did I say I would measure? Honesty, humility, authenticity. If I make a fearless inventory according to those values, I have done the best I know how to do. I have told the truth as I know it; I have accepted both my limits and my capacities; I have chosen to live in the ways that make my heart sing. Am I faultless? Heck no. I’ve had, and will continue to have, forgivenesses to ask, and I will continue to ask for them. Growth is messy, and not at all linear, and it is difficult to express in a social media post, though I’m not above trying.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this; living by your values may mean freaking out your parents, or shifting some of what you thought were your longest-standing relationships, or making big, fat changes to your life that are just not at all what you planned. You’ve got to hold tight to those values for all you’re worth; that’s why you choose them pre-crisis. You said, I plant my flag here. This is the hill I am willing to die on. Did you not mean that?
No one said it was gonna be easy, babe, but I have the feeling it’s going to be worth it.