Value: some further thoughts …

When I first saw this picture with the quote – “The Meaning of Life is to Give Life Meaning.” – I thought I totally agreed with it! But after further thought I find there is a problem.
Can you identify the problem? Do you see what it is implying? It is
saying that life has no meaning inherently, or innately. It’s like saying
the function of a spoon is to give spoons a function- it’s really just a
bit of nonsense isn’t it?

I’m not going to proclaim that I have figured out the meaning
of life for you. It remains a possibility that you and I will always
understand such a thing differently. But I would like to maybe
try to agree on some things about the idea of the meaning of life – if at
all possible.

Primarily, that meaning and value (or meaning and worth) are inter-
related. I am still working to fully understand exactly why this is so… for now we may have to assume that there is certain connection between worth and meaning, and as a result I’d like to ask which comes first? Do we have value because we live meaningful lives? Or are our lives meaningful because we have worth and value? And… if value is the horse and meaning the cart, who is the evaluator, the appraiser ? Do I get to decide my own value? What qualifies me for the role? Do you get to decide my value? (I’m going to say no…) How are we going to decide the value of anything?

A more basic question… What is of worth?
I keep throwing the word “arbitrary” around in my head, with overtones of disdain, because I have realized that if the only way to answer this question is with personal whim or random choice, then Camus was all too correct about the “Absurd”.

We largely spend much of our lives safeguarding our eyes away from the void – the “formless chaos of the world” which became the obsession of the existentialists. Only three options came out of all of that brain power colliding against the void…
Discover meaning through a leap of faith, by placing our hope in something/someone beyond this world.
Conclude that life is meaningless and not worth living.
Accept we live in a world devoid of innate meaning or purpose and simply invent our own – arbitrarily.
“In a remarkable address to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in 1991, Dr. L. D. Rue, confronted with the predicament of modern man, boldly advocated that we deceive ourselves by means of some “Noble Lie” into thinking that we and the universe still have value. Claiming that “The lesson of the past two centuries is that intellectual and moral relativism is profoundly the case,” Dr. Rue muses that the consequence of such a realization is that one’s quest for personal wholeness (or self-fulfillment) and the quest for social coherence become independent from one another. This is because on the view of relativism the search for self-fulfillment becomes radically privatized: each person chooses his own set of values and meaning.” “

Although few people chew on the existentialists any longer (and I have only nibbled), most have apparently concluded, instinctively perhaps, that the 3rd option (invent our own meaning) is valid. But is it?

When we ask such a question as “What is of worth?” we automatically assume ourselves to be the best authority over the answer – the judge – the “arbiter” and never really ask what gives us that authority. If we want to assess the value of a diamond ring, very few of us will assume the authority to perform that assessment – and we will be careful not to consult a shyster who would undervalue the ring in order to take advantage of us. But when it is our very own lives we have sitting under evaluation, we will hand the job over to nearly anyone – and sometimes everyone.

Shall I assume myself to be the most qualified authority over the worth of me? If I do, what is the likelihood that I will under-value or over-value it? And really, where will the parameters for these assessments actually be coming from?

To go back to the diamond ring analogy, I assume that value is determined based on things like shape, weight, clarity, color, etc – and these attributes probably lead to greater or lesser value based on things like market availability and rarity of existence. A very small and very common type of diamond may in fact be very beautiful, but that alone will not determine its value in the market.

I myself may in fact be very beautiful, but that alone will not determine my value in the marketplace of society. No, things like money and power and sex are the primary attributes used to evaluate people in this market and if I presume to “set my own value” or “make my own meaning” I will likely only be judging against the attributes valued by the culture I find myself in.

I started reading James V. Schall the other day (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs) and he very simply wrapped up the reason why I have found myself slightly obsessed with the idea of beauty over the last year or so…

He says:

…when we know a beautiful thing, including a beautiful human thing, something worthy in itself, we reach beyond ourselves; indeed, we are called beyond ourselves.

I’d like to notice things from this quote:

–we can know beauty
–beauty calls us to behold the beyond

–beauty is defined here as something with inherent value

The first point caused me to think through the many many occurrences of beauty which have struck me personally. Often it arrives through music, and poetry, and imagery. Story is also a huge source of beauty if you listen for it – and this is where an clear example of knowing beauty rang for me.

Jean Valjean (aka 24601) was arrested for stealing bread to feed his sisters children. He was imprisoned as a thief for nearly twenty years.  A church takes him in when he is released, but Jean Valjean can only see himself as a thief after twenty years. In the middle of the night he robs the church of several silver articles and makes a run for it – but the law catches him, returns him to the church, and throws him down before the bishop to face charges.

Here is the moment where I always tear up in this story… the bishop turns and grabs two silver candlesticks from a table and says here Jean Valjean – you forgot these. If you know the gospel, the imagery of these candlesticks will likely bring you to weep for beauty as well.

Allow me to remind you of the quote we are working from:
…when we know a beautiful thing, including a beautiful human thing, something worthy in itself, we reach beyond ourselves; indeed, we are called beyond ourselves.

The transcendence point is important and key as well, and I have a lot more I would like to wonder about this idea. Beauty and Goodness and Truth are often called the “Trancendentals”, not because they have anything to do with yoga or transcendental meditation, but because they call us to see beyond our selves, to behold that which is not readily visible to everyone. Plato put forth the idea that in heaven there is a Perfect Beauty, and here on earth we have shadows of that Perfect Beauty to remind us, to draw us, to instruct and strengthen us. There is Perfect Goodness in heaven, but here we have shadows and reminders. There is a Perfect Truth, but here we see through a glass dimly. In short, these are holy attributes of God made visible to us – if only in part.

…when we know a beautiful thing, including a beautiful human thing, something worthy in itself, we reach beyond ourselves; indeed, we are called beyond ourselves.

What struck me most in reading this at the time was the definition of beauty made – “something worthy in itself”.

This is the reason why I am working on writing a book about value… I am convinced that so much of life can be understood, and enhanced, by understanding how we place value, and how we actually should. I know you have likely heard me call pragmatism a prime evil of our day (and if not, you have now) and this is why. Pragmatism allows nothing to be Good or Beautiful or Truthful in and of itself. If nothing has inherent worth – I have no real worth, I only have opinions of others and the games I play with myself.

(Side note: by “inherent” I mean “existing in something as a permanent, essential characteristic or attribute”)

So who is going to be the arbiter of my worth, of my value? Shall I look to my parents? My boss? My spouse? My kids? My neighbor? My therapist? My subscription to People Magazine? My fanciful yet fearful specter of “They”? Who shall I elect to be my judge?

Paul helps me out in 1 Corinthians 4:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For my conscience is clear, but that does not vindicate me. It is the Lord who judges me.

Keller (in his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness) summarizes this passage:
Paul cares very little if he is judged by the Corinthians or by any human court. And then he goes one step further: he will not even judge himself. It is as if he says, ‘I don’t care what you think – but I don’t care what I think. I have a very low opinion of your opinion of me – but I have a very low opinion of my opinion of me.’

Browsing through several translations…
It is the Lord who judges me.
It is the Lord who examines me.
But He that judgeth me is the Lord.
My only true judge is God himself.
My only commendation is from God.
The Master makes that judgment.

All this talk about judgment dregs up some bad feelings I know (condemnation largely) but I think we can understand this passage as a pre-requisite answer to our initial question – “What has worth?” Only the Maker is qualified to assess the true value of what He has made. He created me with inherent attributes that others cannot see – that even I fail to see often. And asking Him to make that evaluation requires that we make that leap into the void rather than despairing at its boundary or attempting to fill it with random junk.

But never mind all of my words, Madonna says it much better:
‘My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being but then I feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.’

Madonna is clearly trying to fill a void rather than just leaping into it. Lesson learned.


Follow-up thoughts:


In Mark 12, some of the Pharisees and Herodians sought to catch Jesus in his words. They asked him… “Is it right to pay tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

Jesus said – essentially – “My-my – we think we are crafty today don’t we?”
“Bring me a coin.” and he held it up for all to see.
“Who’s image is on the coin?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

The story ends here… but let us assume that perhaps one of the proud religious folk said: “And what is God’s?” What would Jesus hold up for all to see in response? Where would Jesus find God’s image to display?