“We think caged birds sing, when indeed they cry.” — John Webster
What are your core values?
I found myself explaining my core values to a man who will have more of an opportunity to raise my children than I will myself — my ex-wife’s new husband, who lives in another city, with whom my children will live.
He had the grace to ask how I want my kids raised. In response, I explained my core values — not the universals we all automatically share, but the ones we might not, even though we both have “good values”.
Here’s one: The universe is a big complicated place. We don’t understand far more than we do. Despite our insurmountable ignorance, there are those who declare their beliefs are the one true faith. They may tolerate others, but toleration is less than the respect given equals.
Our religious documents — the Bible, Koran, Bhaghavat Gita and all the rest — were written by people. They were inspired, perhaps, but they were people nonetheless, with all the normal human constraints imposed by culture, language, and intellect. They filtered their inspiration through those constraints. Neither they, nor you nor I know the one true religion.
Not all mores are acceptable (the cult of Thuggee, for example, which practices ritual assassination, is out of bounds), but there are many different fully valid ways to live. Toleration, which assumes superiority, is a poor attitude. It’s important to embrace all of the many good ways to live a life, and be grateful we live in a world where people have the imagination to find them.
Another core value: Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Comfort the troubled; trouble the comfortable.” Chico Marx said it even better in A Night at the Opera: “Now we really get to work!” The Marx Brothers epitomized our heritage of cheerful disrespect for authority.
The good victims aren’t picked by others. Let someone else make you angry and you’ve been manipulated. The Marx Brothers were immune to propagandists — they chose their own antagonists, always the smug, the arrogant, the self-righteous, the pompous, and most of all the powerful. By puncturing them, they comforted the troubled, too.
So choose your own targets, kids, choose them well, and make sure they’re your targets and not someone else’s. Then take careful aim, remember how I taught you to throw — with vigor and accuracy — and let the pies fly.
And remember that some traditions are worth preserving, so use whipped cream, not Cool Whip.
But the value that is at my core is this: I like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanoes. Despite the tragedies they engender, they remind us we live in a world beyond our mastery.
The day we tame nature, turning the earth into a gigantic Disney theme park, will be the saddest day in human history. We have a deep need to be exceeded by forces we barely understand and can’t hope to control. We need a world with wildness in it to give us a sense of place and perspective. This, it occurs to me, underlies the rest: There’s a virtue in wildness that exceeds the virtue of anything we are able to control. Wildness shows us the limitations of our personal perspectives, and casts doubt on all of our certainties.
This holiday season, as I write these words, I’m looking through a window onto a peaceful lake in the woods, with snow falling gently onto pine trees. It’s really quite beautiful. I hope you also have the chance to experience peaceful beauty this holiday season.
But more, I hope you cherish the wild.