January 6, 2013

The Value of Limits. ~ Jacob Bornstein

Choosing our values is the essential first step to creating the life we want.

As the Christmas lights come down and the blitz of sales advertisements retreat into the blur of seasons past, the cultural currents shift to an all too brief period of reflection, at least if Twitter and Facebook are to be believed. Contemplating the years behind and ahead, I find myself asking not what I want to do, but why do I want to do it? Do I want 2013 to be more mindful? Gentle? Active? How can I determine what I want, if I don’t identify the values behind these choices first?

What are values, anyway? We all have some, presumptively. There are the familiar biblical variety—don’t kill, don’t steal; there are those introduced via philosophy or more recently through economics (which exists somewhere between philosophy and religion), natural rights, or the maximization of utility, the importance of economic growth, etc.

We think of values as positive—whatever that may mean. But realistically, they are simply guides to choice. Most often, they play out implicitly, unstated, in the minor choices of our day-to-day lives. Someone may claim to value health or money, but they will always make the trip to the corner store to buy the next pack of cigarettes or beer. We may say we value the happiness of others, but we may not take the time to actually see, let alone attend to their needs.

Our values play out across this story of our lives, in the things we buy, the jobs we take, the routes we walk, the running of our thoughts and the movement of our bodies from each moment to the next. Values, in this sense, are the contours of life.

And what is a contour, but a limit?

The idea of limits has become deeply unpopular in our society. Ads trumpet unlimited minutes, scientists unlimited energy, politicians unlimited prosperity. But limits are quite literally the foundation of reality. In math, gazing across the vast emptiness of possibility, a circle comes to life as a limit—all points equidistant from a center. Every action we perform or leave undone is a limit—a winnowing down from all the possibilities available to us in that moment to a single and concrete thing, stamped with a heartbeat into the past.

Values are a form of consistent limit. When confronted with a choice—do I cut the line, do I build a planter box, do I leave the water running until it’s toasty, do I download the song, do I help my neighbor move, do I go for a walk, do I watch Game of Thrones, do I buy a new shirt or a hammer or a zucchini? Values (implicit or explicit) give me a framework for making that choice, often with some vague idea in mind for what that will imply about the consequences of my action.

Of course, not all values nor the limits they imply are created equal, and I believe this is where much of the modern day aversion and confusion comes from. Limits, to me, come in two forms—one that is actively chosen (which I think is a better definition of value), and one that is imposed, which is better known as a constraint. People who are genuinely religious don’t eat during Ramadan or Yom Kippur or Lent or meditative fasts because of values. People who don’t eat because they cannot buy or grow food do so because of constraints. Both face, in the moment, the same limit, but the application and meaning of those limits change dramatically depending on whether they are consciously chosen. Because limits are fundamental in everything we do, fear of limits often leads to us running into constraints that could have been averted through consciously chosen values.

We often think of getting what we want as a process of overcoming limits, when in fact it is a process of choosing them. If I want to be healthy, I need to limit all things in my life that are unhealthy. If I want to be rich, I need to limit all the things I do that prevent me from earning money and cause me to spend it. Returning to the example of food, thoughtfully managing the fertility of the soil may mean not eating exactly what we want, when we want it, but that conscious choice averts the later constraint of starvation.

The way we choose our personal values (i.e., limits) in turn creates the values and limits of the society in which we live.

This is the basis of the concept of civil rights and constitutional law, but applies equally well in our day-to-day lives and the moral fabric of our communities.

Here is a strident example: Creating a societal value (or taboo) against rape or murder may limit the exercise of one’s aggressive impulses, but creates a society in which we as individuals are far less likely to face the horrible constraint of sexual or physical violence. I think such legal vision is too narrow, and in the end, insufficiently powerful.

During the recent permaculture course I took with my fiancé, all meals were purchased, cooked, eaten and cleaned communally. Because we all entered with a similar set of values (i.e., no one would be dominant, all work would be shared, we would avoid typical gender roles, we would look after the well-being of the others before ourselves), we operated in harmony with everyone getting a fair share and work being done equally, with little to no structure. Obviously this becomes exponentially more difficult as the stakes and numbers become larger, but the basic notion, that a shared set of values, created in the beginning by the open-mindedness of those who came and the positive example set by those who had lived that way before, created the social environment we came to enjoy, a function of the values we collectively chose.

There is a subtle and essential point in here—the values we pick as individuals create a light for others. We are, for better or worse, imitative creatures (far more than I believe we are “bad” or “good”).

Coherence of personal value, actively chosen and performed under difficult circumstances with integrity and without hypocrisy, sets the foundation for more lasting change, because it provides a powerful and potentially overriding example.

It may be slow and laborious but it is, from what I have seen, the only way in which anything truly changes. At minimum, it is an essential starting point for creating the life we want because without it, we will inevitably encounter the constraints we did not choose—and by extension—do not want.

This is why I believe that consciously examining and choosing our values is the essential first step to creating the life we want. And why not use the beginning of the new year as the time to start?


Jacob Bornstein is a former researcher at the mega hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates. Jake hits the road (and more often the trail) in search of a gentler, more just life. An active Buddhist, permaculturist, and day-dreamer, Jake now calls Boulder, Colorado home. You can find more of his writing at www.joyroots.com, or on twitter @JLBornstein.


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Ed: Brianna B.
Assist Ed: Josie H.


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