A Gift to the World
By Molly Murfee
During the winter holiday season we do a lot of good things. Soup kitchens are overflowing with so many volunteers they can’t take them all. Families adopt “angels” to assure those without means have presents under the tree. We are busy gleefully opening doors for people with packages, seeking that just right gift for those around us – friends, family, those we just plain appreciate. We think outside of ourselves, grinning from ear to ear with our holiday cheer and goodwill.
Oddly, however, during this brief, light-bejeweled window in time, we are actually behaving differently than what many of our American values assert.
Robert Kohls of the Washington International Center spent many of his days helping immigrants moving to the country understand the American culture, writing a paper, “The Values Americans Live By,” to facilitate his endeavors.
Through the eyes of foreign visitors, he compiled 13 values deduced as common among most Americans. They include a belief in personal control over the environment; accepting change as linked to development and growth; individualism; an acute sense of time and adherence to schedules; self-help in the sense of accomplishment; competition and free enterprise; action being superior to inaction; practicality over emotions; materialism.
There are gains, to be sure. Through these values Americans have contributed a vast array of inventions to the world. It is a place where anyone can “make it,” as long as they work hard enough. We theoretically embrace equality, tend to be efficient and practical. We’re goal-oriented, focused, driven, and consequently good at getting things done.
Yet as I evaluate this list, the vast majority of it revolves around ourselves as individuals - so many of these 13 things have to do with doing, accomplishing, working - all to our own gains.
Our individualist tendencies favor competition over cooperation. Our practicality negates the value of the emotional and spiritual. Constantly racing off to our next appointment, we honor time over connection with others. Our proclivity towards being busy leads to the syndrome of the workaholic, rife with a variety of stress-induced diseases. Our materialism, that which demonstrates to us we worked hard enough, leads us down trash-strewn cultural highways of striving for the newer-bigger-more as we scramble to demonstrate our worth. The world, according to Kohl, sees us as caring more for things than for people or relationships. That’s just downright sad.
Some of our presumed assets, then, become our greatest deficits, for as we value our own success above all else, we inherently and simultaneously devalue other people, especially if they appear different than ourselves. Down the drain goes our treatment of our air, water and land. Plants and creatures aren’t even considered, especially if we don’t perceive them as being useful to us.
Our capitalistic system driving our values declares economics are the be-all-end-all. The monetary bottom line is the strongest, the most cherished. We make our decisions first and foremost from this place. If someone with money is going to be upset about our decision we make another. If we perceive doing the right thing costs too much immediate money we look the other way, hoping the problem will evaporate into the ether. We’re afraid to stand up to the power we inject into money, terrified of a negatively impacted bottom line, of something being taken away.
And while all of this makes us “successful” in terms of our acquired status or things, we are failing in so many other respects that would contribute to a more well-rounded, wholesome and meaningful life.
What do we sacrifice when we only make decisions based on the bottom line? What are the costs of our needs for convenience? Our penchant for rampant individualism? The need to prove our worth through money and power and things?
What, then, do we actually value?
Is it our happiness? Our sanity? Our sense of calm? Of truly seeing and relishing in this glorious present moment?
Do we value being kind? Empathetic? Telling the truth? Do we listen – or are we too busy asserting our own opinion? Are we so worried about projecting our own self-worth we refuse to admit our wrong? Are we constantly trying to show off? One up with our acquisitions and status?
Do our decisions and actions show we value our neighbors? Our community? The one outside our front door, the one half way around the globe. Do we think outside of individual gain long enough to help someone when it doesn’t directly benefit us?
How do we want to be remembered? For our bank account or our benevolence? Are we making decisions based solely on economics? Or heart. Do we include a sense of care for both people and planet? And where – exactly – is all of this going to get us?
What is missing from Kohl’s list is a lot – much of what other countries do exhibit. A focus on collaboration and community, spirituality, human interaction, just “being” instead of “doing.” A detachment from material objects. A connection to tradition. Idealism instead of just practicality. The overall welfare of the group, instead of solely the individual. A caretaking and reciprocity with the earth.
Values are cultural. What we consider written, immutable – just plain isn’t. There are always other ways to view the world.
In the holidays we come together – as family, as community. We reach out to others less fortunate, try to help out, try to be friendly. We are capable. But what are we doing the rest of the year? What values are we exhibiting? Day to day. In every choice. Are we letting money rule? Are we willing to stick our necks out – with our votes, choices and actions - from politicians to picking an apple, from the grandiose to the just enough? Are we willing to let go of a little bit of convenience, a little bit of the shiny and new, for the benefit of a greater good?
What if we envision a world going forward into the new year, where the boundaries of taking care of ourselves broaden to include all creatures, all people. The plants and the animals. The water and the land. The air. Where we valued something other than our own self-annihilating gain? If the bottom line was certainly a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole pie, and our balance sheet demanded we reconcile to line items greater than our tiny human selves?
Now that would be a gift to the world.