I have thought much lately about the question – “What will you leave behind you Stevie-Dean?”
It seems to me in light of the current culture and politics of America that perhaps it is time for me, and maybe others, to actually examine their own ethics and how we live our lives prior to condemning others for the way they lead theirs. Perhaps if we work harder to become our better selves then our communities and our country can evolve into better versions of themselves as well. From violence and political assassinations to ideological clashes and bigotry to bullying and guns, we have far to go as a nation to put into practice some of the basic tenets upon which this country was built. We are, in my opinion, a culture that is in serious need of some values clarification. Who we are as a community and what we will contribute to the greater world, however, is built from who we are as individual human beings and how we choose to conduct ourselves every day, not just when we vote. To what do we hold ourselves as individuals accountable? It is by starting there I think that we are able to begin to bring about change and healing for our tired and divided country. Are we as individuals living up to our ideals for whom we should be or are we complacently just moving from day to day without recognizing the impact of our behavior in the greater picture?
So as my commitment to myself and motivated by the coming of yet another new year I decided to walk my talk and start with me.
In 2000, I was on a combination drug therapy to treat chronic Hepatitis C. It was a dark and troubling time for me but one in which I learned much about the value of life. I began to ponder then what I wanted to leave behind me when I die. During that time a friend showed me a template of what his Rabbi called an ethical will. I spent many hours contemplating that document during my six months of treatment and since. The following is an excerpt from my journal at the time:
What would it say, this ethical will? What are the values that would fuel it? How would it look in real life? Do I know what my values are? Do I have a code of ethics by which I lead my life? Do I have enough courage to find out what they are and how I measure up against them?
It is a difficult thing, this honesty with oneself. To boldly put down in writing, all of one’s ideals to be compared visibly with all of one’s faults can be a frightening task. There are so many risks involved, and we as humans or more accurately – we as adult humans, don’t deal well in general, with blows to the ego. And I am certainly no different but perhaps it might be worth the risks in the end.
There is a quote by Thomas Szaz that says, “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily, and why older persons, especially if vain or important, have difficulty in learning. Pride and vanity thus can be grater obstacles to learning that stupidity.” I think that about says it all when you think about it.
It is the striving for all of the things that I find of value that is of the most merit to me. I am acutely aware that I am just an imperfect human being who will never achieve most of life’s more noble goals but I think the journey is one worth making even in the face of certain failure. Was it not Winston Churchill who said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with great enthusiasm”? It is the journey not the destination that is the most relevant to me. That is a notion that has also taken a long time for me to come to respect and value. In March of 1976 I was discharged from substance treatment and a friend gave me a plant as a bon voyage gift and in the card she wrote, “Congratulations on your first step in the journey of ten thousand miles.” I will never forget it. It was a revolutionary idea to me and I found the notion utterly depressing. At that time I thought I was done and that the journey was over. I had gotten to where I wanted to be, I had reached the ending and was supposed to live happily ever after. I didn’t understand then the value of the journey.
I sigh as I write this – with so many of the steps behind me and the fear that there are not nearly enough left in front of me – I wish now that the journey was still 10,000 miles and I was yet on that first step. It is amazing how your perspective changes over time.
I have thought about this issue of the journey toward a code of personal ethics ever since I wrote that entry in 2000. I didn’t know where to go with the whole thing at the time though. Now here it is 2013 and I have once again been dealing with the after effects of Hepatitis C treatment and have again returned to mull over the question, “what will you leave behind Stevie-Dean?”.
I have decided this time, however, that I want to bring some clarity and closure to at least part of the question. I like the whole concept of practicing who you want to be with consciousness, this idea of the evolution of a personal code of ethics and putting it out there to be compared against my own inevitable human failures. E.E. Cummings once wrote, “It takes a lot of courage to grow up and be who you really are.” So I decided to give it a try. I don’t always remember to walk my talk but I try and this process has been settling somehow. And while the idea of publicly admitting that this is what I believe is terrifying, it is also giving myself and all of those around me, permission to hold me accountable for the ongoing effort to become who I really want to be.
Finding a format in which to catalogue a set of values was a bit of a challenge initially. How does one frame something so important in a way that reflects the aspirations and good intentions inherent in a set of values? I was raised in an environment when “should” was the order of the day, but at 59, not so much. So I tried to find a way to articulate the values in strength based way and to also recognize that, for me, they are a journey toward an end that I will likely never reach. With that in mind I wrote them as goal statements and affirmations rather than commandments. This is what I learned from this part of the journey, this is what I value….
Family and Clan Relationships: I will work to communicate openly so that I maintain closeness and intimacy in my relationships with those that I am closest to, and to remember that it is not only blood that binds but commitment as well.
Integrity: I will strive always to act in ways that are consistent with my core beliefs and values, even as I mature and change, so that I make decisions for which my regrets are minimal.
Respect: I will endeavor to always act, honor and think with deference to what is of value and importance to those around me, to myself, and to the planet that is my home.
Honesty: I will try to be open and without deceit in my communication with myself, others and in my reception of others’ communications with me.
Compassion: I will practice being empathetic and in consideration of others and their realities rather than judging them or being in consideration only of myself.
Ingenuity/Resourcefulness: I will work to find solutions to problems and dilemmas using what I have around and inside of me, and will not always rely on others or be stopped by what I do not have.
Self-Reliance: I will not expect others to do for me that which is my responsibility to do for myself, while also maintaining my willingness to do for others what I can, without expectation of return.
Creativity: I will actively pursue endeavors in which I exercise my artistic and creative nature to its fullest potential, including the building of trust in my own intuition, talents, and skills.
Humor: I will remember that in all things there is something to smile and laugh about and to remember that humor can be the great solace of the soul if you let it.
Interdependence: I will strive to always remember that I am reliant on the environment and earth upon which I live, as well as, those around me both human and animal, for my physical, social, emotional, and intellectual survival and health.
Reciprocity: I will strive always to give more than I take from those around me and my environment
Diversity: I will strive to embrace the incredible richness of differences and commonalities that I feel blessed to be surrounded by everyday and to respect the variety of people, cultures, and communities that make up this richness.
A Life of Service and Stewardship: I will strive always to be of service to my family, clan, community, state, country, and the earth.
Loyalty/Honor: I will practice unconditional positive regard toward even those who may try my soul and will try always to act in good faith and with the best of intentions.
A Commitment to Life-long Learning: I will strive to remember that there is always more that I can learn despite what I might think.
Now if I can keep up my courage and continue to try to live up to my own goals I think that it will be a good start to my 60th year. For those of you who have chosen to actually read this to the end, may it be an equally fulfilling journey for you as well.