I’ve come to believe that every person has a priority system that governs how they act and interact with the world around them. Sometimes it’s easier to think of these as value systems. What I mean by value systems is not what we morally or ethically condone, but the traits that we prize in ourselves and others. It may be helpful to think about this as placing value on something over something else. If I value trust first and foremost that means that I value it over fairness, over appearance, and over reasonability, so on and so forth. What we value defines who we are, how we look at the world, and how we seek to treat and be treated by others.
Those who understand our value system and seek to comply with our core value definitions are the people who become valuable to us be that as acquantences, friends or in another role of importance in our lives. Conflict is most likely to happen in our lives among those who have a fundamentally different value system than our own. We don’t like those who we disagree with regardless of the prescribed role they may have in our lives. Think of that friend whose life outlook changed when they went off to college or that sibling who re-thought their value system later on in life. Think of that estranged parent who all of a sudden wants a role in your life when you turn eighteen because they can finally interact with you without having to assume social or legal responsibility over you. It’s amazing what people do when there are no consequences involved.
We can think of our value system as a ladder. No matter who you are or what you do there is going to be one thing that impacts your life more than anything else. This is the number one priority in your mind when making decisions or thinking about the people in your lives. It will govern how you think about people around you and will guide decisions that you make towards nearly everyone you encounter. My value system places fairness at the top of the ladder. Wisdom and knowledge follow as we descend the ladder with reasonability and pragmatism following close behind. Values like creativity, artistry, humor, and expression round out the rungs on my ladder. Again, top tier issues always trump lower tier issues. When we understand how this system works we are in a better position to understand others and ultimately ourselves.
If you know someone who values appearance above fairness and your system is different you are going to have problems with this person. We operate best within a climate of people who both know and understand our values. Think about that person that you go to when something is really bothering you or when you want to complain. We don’t complain to just anybody because we want a certain response. Most of us don’t complain just for the heck of it, but because we get what I call a value-added response. That is, the person we are complaining to likely sympathizes with our plight, shares our disdain, and seeks a similar value judgment from the situation as you do. Some people ask why everyone seems to come to them to hash out their problems or voice their concerns. These people tend to have high degrees of sensitivity and sensibility as well as a great deal of awareness both of themselves and others. The reason people go to them with their issues is because not only are they willing to listen, but they oftentimes have quick, pragmatic feedback that offers a solution that they could not gain on their own.
Simply because you don’t share unique core values with someone does not mean you cannot identify with them. If we have certain values like learning or acceptability we may be better suited to move among groups we wouldn’t typically be seen to identify with. I had a teacher once who did not place a high value on fairness. When I had another teacher later on in my academic career who had a similar disposition I knew not to fight it as nothing would be gained by doing so. I just kept plugging away and behaved as rationally towards them as possible with the slim hope that they would see just how agonizing their systems were on their students. Of course these teachers never figured it out even when given proper feedback on it because in order to change you need to admit that something is wrong. Someone who does not view fairness as a high priority is unlikely to value your opinion if they do not respect you and lets face it: in a student-teacher relationship one side has the power and the other does not. Someone asked me after the semester was over if I had resolved my differences with this particular professor. My response was that barring a major life-altering event this person was never going to see what they needed to see. Some people have an absolute belief in their ways and methods that borderlines mania. These people can’t be reasoned with because along with fairness, reason is also a low priority when the decision in question does not have a direct effect on them.
We are in a good position to get along and move along when we can find those who place a high value on understanding someone else’s situation or outlook. If we find ourselves constantly at odds with others sometimes we need to start questioning ourselves. When I was in high school I had an English class that I deemed to be utterly ridiculous. It didn’t help matters that my teacher was a religious zealot whose absolute belief in the bible seemed completely at odds with the underlying idea of literary interpretation that provided her with employment. This was a soft hatred at first. I didn’t directly oppose her ideas as I saw little value in doing so, but then something changed and that thing was the Jesus assignment.
My teacher asked us to consider who our hero was and to write a paper on why they were our hero.
I wrote a paper, as you can imagine, on my grandpa. You simply could not and to this day indeed cannot convince me that there was a man who was better or more integral to my development as a person as my grandpa. I made an impassioned appeal to the class the next day. It was quite impressive. Then the little man sitting a few rows away from me made his case for a man who meant a great deal to him. The man that meant everything to this guy was Jesus. My reasoning was questioned by my teacher while the kid who took the easy way out and played to the teacher got to leave class early. I could have taken out my anger on him, but in my infinite wisdom I understood that she was the greater enemy as she was spreading her gospel in all the wrong places and among all the wrong people.
From then on I chose to do as that little man did and define the world – insofar as it related to this English class – around Jesus and the Christian interpretation of the New Testament of the Bible. I came to hate anything that had to do with that class. The reason for this was simple: there was always an absolutely right and absolutely wrong answer. I did not understand how there could only be one interpretation of literature and to this day I am still amazed that she is still employed in her capacity as a interpreter of literature. The very concept angers me. When it came to interpreting literature in her class my formula was simple: think of the most absurd way to tie this in to her fundamentally flawed view of Christianity and flaunt that view as much as possible.
Although it seemed rather obnoxious to adopt this formula to our reading of The Most Dangerous Game I did so purely out of spite. Indeed I applied it with the same vigor my teacher used for afternoon prayer. When we had to get into groups following our writing of an essay on the topic I didn’t want to share my answers. It all seemed so utterly absurd to me, but when pressed by the cute cheerleader in the group I quickly relented. After I was done explaining how the story simply wasn’t possible because Jesus died on the cross for Lockwood’s sins my teacher gave me a pat on the back and the cheerleader smiled at me.
“That’s kind of genius,” she said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I wasn’t thinking about Jesus at all when I read this,” she replied.
“Neither did I,” I admitted rather sheepishly. I knew in my mind though that unless my answers had something to do with Christ as Lord my teacher would mark my answers wrong. A few years later I learned that I was one of a handful of students that she targeted as non-believers. My only real surprise upon hearing this news was learning that she did not approach my locker armed with a suicide vest on the last day of class. The crux of our problem was not between teacher and student although it may seem like that was the issue today. The real issue was that I believed she wasn’t teaching the class fairly. When she gave that other guy all the accolades in the world for bestowing all of his love onto someone he had never met in Jesus it upset me. When you think about it from a purely fair perspective it makes sense. I knew my grandpa, but I didn’t know this Jesus fellow. That’s how I viewed it growing up and I still don’t understand why one person is viewed as being better than the other. It’s simple fairness to me, but to many it’s a question of values just not a set of values that I and many others have come to recognize as being fair.