Aligning Values & Actions: A Practice in Self-Discovery & Transformation
After my grandfather’s funeral, I sat down at a picnic table with his brother, my great-uncle Leo, whom I had not met until that point. He was decked-out in full cowboy garb, including boots, western shirt, oversized belt-buckle, bolo tie, and shabby Stetson Dakota hat. In my business casual, I told him proudly about all the recent successes I’d had – graduated college, got a job, married, bought a house and car, and just had my first child.
“You’ll be divorced in 5 years,” he said.
“Wow, why would you say that?”
“Because I know you.”
“You just met me 5 minutes ago!”
“Yeah, I heard enough.”
“What are you basing that on?” I asked.
“Well, you said you play golf in your free time, right?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Well, there you go. You work fifty hours a week to pay for all your crap, then you go hit a little white ball on the weekends. And you have a young son at home? You’re putting yourself over your relationship with your wife and child. That doesn’t end well.”
He had a point. Possibly several. But perhaps he was overreacting.
“Well I have to do something to relieve my stress!”
“Then get in a canoe with your wife and son and head down these Illinois rivers. That’s what I did.”
“Maybe my wife doesn’t want to do that,” I said with irritation. I could feel my reasoning crumbling.
“Well, go play golf then,” he said with a shrug. “But I’ll tell you, divorce is expensive. And you better get your actions aligned with your values, or you’re in for a bad time, son.”
I sat there, stunned. Leo had a knack for knocking people right off their rockers with these kinds of opening zingers. Although I could have easily shrugged off his words as the musings of a grumpy old cowboy, I sensed he wasn’t just spouting nonsense. Maybe I really was being selfish. What else was I doing that may have been lowering my chances for a lifelong marriage? I had a bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach.
This exchange led to even further reflection upon a number of my behaviors that weren’t quite in sync with the things I purported to value, such as family, personal growth, and spirituality.
That was 17 years ago. It was a lesson that has stayed with me. Every few years I go through the process of re-defining my values and considering the behaviors that either reflect or hinder those values. What I realized over time is that this process of aligning values to actions is not all that different from what is prescribed in many of the religious and spiritual traditions. Each of the traditions typically include some element of self-reflection, obedience, sacrifice, self-control, and ultimately transformation. We can see this clearly in the writings of the Desert Fathers of Christianity, Indian Yogis, Zen Buddhist monks, and the Stoics, among others.
In the Christian tradition, the Desert Fathers of the third century called upon us to engage in contemplative prayer and to listen within to discover our true selves. The mystic Thomas Merton described the Desert Fathers as living within a program that “enabled the old superficial self to be purged away and permitted the gradual emergence of the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were ‘one Spirit’” (Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert). Clarifying our values requires us to become intimate with who we are and what we care about, which can only come from careful attention to what lies deep within.
Once one’s values have been clarified, the next step is committing to serve the higher ends set out for oneself. Paul the Apostle stated we can either be “slaves to righteousness” or “slaves to sin.” We can only serve one master. Without a conscious choice, we often mindlessly conform to what he calls “the patterns of this world,” becoming prisoners of the selfish desires of the ego instead of being guided by something larger and more discerning, our inner spirit.
Along the way, sacrifices must be made, and one will constantly be challenged to exhibit varying degrees of self-control. For the Desert Fathers, their primary sacrifice was becoming hermits and breaking away from the world in order to properly “watch over themselves interiorly.” Other sacrifices included forms of asceticism, or giving up the gratification of “fleshly desires” in exchange for a more meaningful outcome or experience, something that will yield greater fulfillment and peace.
Developing self-control obviously does not come without struggle, as can be heard in Paul the Apostle’s famous lament: “That which I do not want to do, that I do.” Jesus delivers a similar warning when he tells us to “watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The Desert Fathers put extremely strong emphasis on developing self-control as a means for attaining “purity of heart.” They provided practical guidance for controlling anger, holding one’s tongue, moderating one’s eating habits, and abstaining from wine. Some even took drastic measures to build up self-control:
“It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.” (Merton, Wisdom of the Desert)
We don’t have to become desert monks, but we can do ourselves a huge favor by removing the things in our lives that are pulling us away from the higher path we’ve set for ourselves. Some of the activities we enjoy but are hindering us may have to be cut out. After all, it was Jesus himself who told us, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.”
Periodically, we must change or rearrange our lives and lifestyles in a way that allows us to give ourselves more fully to the people and things we care about. I decided to put family first, and over the last 17 years I’ve cut out or drastically reduced golf, TV, social media, alcohol, and even quit grad school once I felt the demands were pulling me too far away from my family.
Seeking clarity and alignment around values and actions is truly a spiritual practice in self-discovery, self-discipline, and personal transformation. We can start by introducing the simple practices of meditation or contemplative prayer into our lives, which will help bring clarity to where we stand in relation to the things we truly love and care about.
The difficult but necessary work of sacrifice and self-control teaches us resistance to the temptations that can take us off our path. Ultimately, by connecting our lived actions to our inner loving hearts, we become more present and giving to the world around us. It may even save us from having “a really bad time,” to quote an old cowboy.
Brad Benson is the Founder and Chairman of HEF Solutions, a healthcare IT company based in Elgin, IL. His primary interests outside of work and family include psychology, philosophy, art, and religion, and he seeks to discover parallels and similarities within these disciplines that can help lead one towards spiritual growth and development. Brad lives in Sycamore, IL with his wife Julie and their three children Nolan (16), Leah (13), and Nora (8).