Chapter 6: When All Else Fails — excerpted from WHAT DO YOU WANT OUT OF LIFE?: A Philosophical Guide To Figuring Out What Matters by Valerie Tiberius
Let’s take stock. It’s good for us to be able to do the things that matter to us. We’re not always clear about what matters, or what matters most, or how it matters, and the experience of conflict pushes us to find clarity. We refine our system of values and goals by seeing clearly what they are, adjusting how we go about achieving them, getting rid of the bad stuff, and reinterpreting what our values mean so that we can pursue them together. What do we do when these strategies fail? What can we do about perpetual conflicts that we can’t reduce using any of these methods? Do these failures mean we aren’t on the right path?
MAKING PEACE WITH WHAT YOU CAN’T CHANGE
Some readers, in response to my confessions about the experience of academic leadership, may have thought that I should stop being so damned sensitive! Stop caring what other people think! If I could have let go of some of the goals that female (and diabetic) socialization encouraged in me, I could have taken the money and run! (At many universities, including mine, you get extra pay to be the department chair.) Certainly there are women who have resisted the internalization of feminine norms more successfully than I have.
But, in the words of Popeye the Sailor Man, I am what I am, and what I am is stuck with some internal conflicts. In general, we can’t do things that we can’t do, and our goals and hidden motives can be remarkably tenacious. That being the case, what do we do if we think we ought to stop caring so much about what everyone else thinks, or about making a lot of money, but we just can’t make much progress?
A second-best strategy for dealing with goals that we identify as undesirable but unmovable is to try to see the humor in our imperfection. For example, let’s say you’re a male nurse who comes to realize that your interest in weight-lifting is due in part to a desire to appear masculine. And let’s imagine that you don’t really like this about yourself— you don’t see traditional masculinity as an important value that you should uphold—but you also realize that it’s a pretty sticky part of your personality. One option is to embrace this aspect of yourself without really endorsing it, as you might do with a friend’s flaws. We do this with friends all the time: “Oh, that’s just Dom. They’re anxious about money and it makes them annoying when you’re paying a restaurant bill, but they’re not actually a stingy person.” “Yeah, Walter is weirdly snobby about wine, but you can tease him about it.” Similarly, we can acknowledge the aspects of ourselves that are in tension with what really matters to us, tease ourselves about them, and try not to let them motivate us to do anything that’s harmful. You can smile at yourself for wanting to be manly while enjoying your strength and the admiring stares you get at the gym.
Humor should be accompanied by a little compassion. I can sympathize with the puny little me who wants everyone to like her and who feels as though she’s not good enough to be where she is. Welcome to the party, imposter syndrome!1 This comes from a guided meditation I once listened to. The meditation expert, Jeff Warren, suggested to his listeners that when we identify a bad feeling or thought, we “welcome it to the party” of thoughts and feelings, without judgment. This is similar to laughing at the parts of ourselves that we wish we didn’t have; it’s a way of decreasing their power by taking away their central role as our enemy. If the meditation experts are correct, welcoming these undesirable parts of ourselves to “the party”— accepting who we are without being too self-critical, having a sense of humor about it—may also be a good way to loosen the hold of our undesirable features. I do find that once I name what I’m feeling “imposter syndrome,” the feelings of inferiority diminish.
In effect, what we’re doing when we “make peace” with some aspect of ourselves in these ways is demoting it. We’re saying “this desire to please everyone is not a value, it’s a quirk of my personality” or “this concern for traditional masculinity is not a priority, it’s the result of harmful socialization.” This is why making peace doesn’t cause us to be unsettled about our values, even though it doesn’t resolve the conflict completely. Generally, as we’ve seen, conflict gives rise to doubt about our values; it spurs us to investigate and refine what matters to us. When we agree to live with some part of ourselves that is in conflict with important goals, the conflict is still there, but the bite is taken out of it.
Making peace doesn’t mean just living with goals you reject and letting them take up a lot of space in your life. The “make peace with it” strategy is not the easy way out. Making peace means refusing to commit to your undesirable goal as a value.
This requires some effort. It’s easy to get swept back into old patterns in which that sticky, unhelpful part of yourself is running the show. Inviting my inner pleaser to the party is not the same thing as inviting her to the leadership circle, and I have to be on guard against her trying to take over. As we saw in the last chapter, we can help ourselves out here by explicitly valuing changing the ugly forces that created the patterns we don’t like. I find it easier to keep my inner pleaser in the demotion zone when I am working against the norms that create more inner pleasers.
Think about gardening again. Some of the features of our personalities are a bit like the weather—there’s just not much you can do about them. You can’t grow rhubarb in the desert, and I can’t be straightforwardly assertive without feeling a little bit bad about myself. More generally, for most of us there are things we value that we wish we didn’t have to care about, or that we wish we could value differently, that nevertheless limit how it’s possible for us to reshape our other goals. The path forward to value fulfillment is to make compromises you can live with given where you are.
But is this the only path?
One thing we can say about the strategies we’ve considered so far is that they are conservative. Whether we are identifying bad values, reinterpreting good values, or looking for confirmation that we have the right values, we are always relying on other values we have. I’ve said this a few times. There’s no value-free perspective we can take to assess all of our values at once. But what if our values are wrong all the way down?
What if what we really need is a complete overhaul, or at least a big change to something very basic and central to our system of values? What if our values were planted in a toxic waste site and we need to uproot the old oak trees and replace all the soil?
It’s not impossible that the life in which a person can get the most value fulfillment is one in which that person undergoes a radical change of values: a “value system transplant,” we might say. People whose values have been shaped by external forces that are insensitive to their interests may end up with values so unsuitable that they can’t get to a better set just by tinkering with the ones they have. Unfortunately, many people who are in this situation will not have the freedom to experiment. If your values have been successfully shaped by an abusive family or an oppressive culture, your freedom to imagine alternatives may also be curtailed. This is a serious moral problem that really requires a book of its own (and, indeed, many books have been written about it).2 Our focus in the remainder of this chapter will be on people who are able to consider dramatic changes.
I have not experienced a radical change in my own values, so I don’t have any personal experience to draw on here. Instead, my thoughts on this subject have been influenced by memoirs and stories about people whose values have been fundamentally challenged. One particularly illuminating case comes from Tara Westover’s wonderful memoir, Educated.3 Westover was raised by fundamentalist Mormon parents who had delusions of impending Armageddon and did not believe in Western medicine. The father of the family was a scrap metal collector who put his children at tremendous risk carting dangerous heavy objects. Many of them had accidents, were seriously injured, and then received no effective treatment. The values Westover inherited from her parents literally made her sick, injured her body, and prevented her from getting an education, which was something she craved.
Reading this memoir, there were many points at which it was hard for me to understand why she found it so difficult to run as far away as she could from her crazy and dangerous family. But her book also illustrates how incredibly challenging radical change can be, even if it seems like the obvious choice from the outside. In the end, Westover had to cut ties with many members of her family. Still, there was genuine love involved, and this often caused her to doubt her rebellious plans. She grew up valuing her family and her relationships with her parents and siblings. That means she grew up caring about them and thinking that they mattered to the quality of her own life. Values, even those that need to be changed, are held in place by an integrated pattern of emotions, desires, and judgments. A radical change will shake the earth, and it’s very hard to choose to do something that disturbs the ground you walk on.
Westover’s experience is extreme, but in broad outline, it is one shared by anyone who breaks with her family, religion, or culture for the sake of other values. LGBTQ people whose families reject them are often in this position. They make new lives and reject many of the friendships, communities, ideals of character, and other values with which they grew up. Revolutionaries and activists who rebel against their culture have to make a radical change in the values that they share with the culture in which they were raised. Divorce is sometimes the result of a radical change in values, especially for women who pursue it because they come to see how their marriage is shaped by sexist norms. A woman who realizes that she does all the housework, that her needs always come second, and that her husband is not actually very interested in what she wants may decide that the only self-respecting path forward is to end the marriage. This is not a simple shift in values, especially if there are children in the family—swap out a husband for a paid handyman and a few boyfriends and voilà! At least for some women, divorce can be a radical change because it impinges on so many things, from self-image to financial security to vacation plans.
As these examples suggest, “radical” value change is a matter of degree. But what they have in common is that something central to the person’s web of values is no good and needs to be changed. Until this point, we have relied on ultimate values as touchstones in the process of refining our systems of goals. Now the question is what to do if we can’t rely on those touchstones. What if some of our ultimate values (family, marriage, church, community) are precisely the ones that are making us miserable? What do we do then?
Someone whose basic values are hurting them is like someone who is being tossed by a powerful wave—they need something to hang onto, to tell them which direction is up. If you’ve never been tossed by a wave, I can tell you that it’s an incredibly disorienting experience! I think something similar must happen to people who have reason to doubt their basic values. So, the question of what to do is really a question of what to hold on to. What can we trust?
We might hope that someone will throw us a rope. But there are two problems with ropes: someone has to be holding the other end, and you have to decide to grab hold. If you’re drowning and desperate, you’ll grab onto anything, but that doesn’t settle the question of what’s good for you. I think that the question of what to hang on to has to be settled by something we’re already holding. Now that I’ve stretched this metaphor as far is it will go, let me make the point directly: when our basic values are harmful to us, we can change them by appealing to even more basic features of our goal-seeking nature. We can understand radical shifts in values as responding to very basic goals that we can’t psychologically do without.
The psychology of our goal-seeking nature, as discussed in chapter 2, will come in handy to explain this. There are some basic psychological motivations that almost every one of us has and has had since we were a baby. These are our needs for comfort and security, novelty and excitement, autonomy (control over our life), competence (the skills to do what we want to do), and affiliation with other people. These are things we can hang on to when we are at sea.
Our feelings are another basic building block. Recall that what it is to value something includes the tendency to have good feelings about it. Part of what it is to value family is to feel happy about spending time with them. Part of what it is to value your work is to feel proud of it when you do a good job. To value running is to enjoy it. To value being a parent is to feel pride when your kid tells you you’re the best mom or dad. To value music is to be excited when you have the opportunity to see your favorite band play live. Feelings are an essential part of our capacity to value anything. That means that if we are looking to make a radical change, we are going to have to find something we will respond to emotionally.
So, if we are questioning some fairly central goals and values, we still have something to anchor us: our basic motivations and our feelings. In one way of looking at it, these basic motivations and feelings are a bedrock foundation, something we can rely on unconditionally in order to build up a better system of values. As you might guess at this point in the book, I’m not a great believer in bedrock foundations when it comes to values. Nevertheless, I do think these basic motivations and our feelings provide a kind of raft we can rely on if we are considering a radical change. The idea is that these things are the most stable platform we have and relying on them is better than drowning.
It strikes me that this makes sense of the experiences that Tara Westover reports. What did she hang on to while she was in such a turbulent phase of her life? How did she do this? She relied on her own motivations and feelings—the physical pain caused by her father and brother, the love of her other siblings who were suffering because of their father, and her tremendous curiosity about the world. Her intellectual curiosity led her to figure out how to get admitted to Brigham Young University without a high school diploma and, ultimately, to earn a PhD in history at Cambridge University in England. Educated is the title of her book and it’s also one of the goals (initially hidden to her) that allowed her to change many of her values.
People raised in hostile communities that do not support them can also rely on basic needs and feelings as anchors. Many LGBTQ people maintain the value of “family” by reinterpreting this to mean “chosen family.” Basic affiliative goals anchor a shift to a new set of people who allow the person to fulfill their other goals and to feel supported in doing so. Women who get a divorce because they come to see their marriages as oppressive hang on to the values of self-respect, autonomy, and their own competence. These shifts have significant costs: giving up something that has been a basic value is a real loss, even if the promise is that you will have greater fulfillment in the future with your significantly revised set of values. But there are costs on both sides and changing a basic value may still be better than the alternative.
To review, to live our lives well we need to be able to pursue and achieve the things that really matter to us. In other words, we need to be able to fulfill our goals, and especially our most important goals—our values. Once we can identify our values and what the conflicts are, we have a strategy for solving our problem. We examine our minor goals, beliefs, and desires for their relationship to our core values, identify and eliminate goals and values that are not consistent with our core values, and make use of the enormous flexibility of our brains to re-interpret our values so that they harmonize with our beliefs, feelings, and circumstances. When we can’t achieve harmony with what we have, we can consider strategies for making peace or making radical change. But even when radical change is the best option, we have to work with who we are.