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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Defined by our Values by Vesta Copestakes

By Vesta Copestakes
Like many of our readers, I’m in the age group when we are sandwiched in between children and parents. As we move through the years, the young end of the spectrum is filled with grandchildren, while the old end drops off. Life has a way of getting our attention during these passages. What we once thought of as infinitely important becomes insignificant within the grand scheme of things. It’s a good time to take a look at what we value…what is really important…and what sustains our lives in meaningful ways.

Parents tell their children to step back and get perspective when making important decisions. My favorite…don’t make life-altering choices when you are emotionally charged. But children rarely listen. Imperatives drive youth. Desire is a hormonal force that goes beyond lust and love to include the desire for new experiences, challenges, relationships…the next mountain to climb. It’s exciting to be young. There’s no time to pause and ponder the consequences of our actions over the long-term.

The Weight of Obligation
Responsibilities are what weigh us down. We buy a car, a house, furniture, tools for work and play, and although they enable us to accomplish our goals, they also carry the weight of obligation. Each person and thing we add to our lives, the heavier responsibility becomes. It’s why some people choose to be homeless. They simply don’t want to be accountable for and to anyone. That may be an extreme for most of us, but the footloose and fancy-free life becomes a fantasy that is impossible to achieve with each increased obligation.

Getting Perspective
I recently attended my step-mother’s memorial in New Hampshire. I was there for two weeks, working with my sisters to end the life that my now-deceased parents had built over many decades. Their home, the objects within it, and the people who came by to visit were threads in the fabric of the life they had created within their community. I fell in love with my parents all over again as I touched the objects of their lives and conversed with the people who cared about them. These were the identifiers of what my parents considered valuable. 

My sisters and I had the task of emptying the house, deciding if we wanted to take anything home with us, what to give away and what to throw away. As the professional assessor of the estate deduced, there was little of any material value beyond the house itself. My parents fit comfortably into a middleclass life. They both worked and saved enough that they could retire without suffering financially. They were frugal to a fault, used everything until it literally fell apart, rarely bought new, and recycled every object that passed through their hands…whether it was recycling trash or giving away useful objects to people with greater need.

But they were also generous. Janet’s office was scattered with thank you notes from organizations and people to whom she had given money and time. We had instructions that everything that could not find a home was to be put in a yard sale that would benefit two of Janet’s favorite charitable causes…the Friendly Kitchen that feeds homeless people and Zonta International, an organization of professional women who work to make life better for women across the planet.

Sorting through my parents’ physical life made me re-examine my own. I watched my two sisters grapple with their own approach to discarding someone else’s possessions from “let’s get a dumpster” to “do we HAVE to recycle EVERYTHING?” As I stood in this simple house I saw how very much I had adopted my parents’ values as my own. I relate to how they lived, how they prioritized their time, the value (or lack of value) they placed on material possessions.

What’s RIGHT for Each of Us
It’s not that one value system is more right than another. We each find our own values in very much the same way we find a religion or spirituality that fits comfortably. The people we know and love are as much a reflection of our values as the possessions we own and how we prioritize our time. What’s interesting is looking at our own lives to see what the environment we create says about who we are.

As the global economy continues to falter, we are being forced to re-structure our lives from the place we call home to the car we drive. Lost jobs make any job start to look good. Cars that are fully paid for look better than ones with monthly payments and high insurance premiums. Low rent for a roof over our heads looks better than a high mortgage and property taxes. It’s all a matter of living a life that we can comfortably sustain rather than one that places so much pressure on us that we crumble under the weight.

Balancing Heart vs. Money
A friend who employs more than 40 people looks at his workforce and sees that he could lay off four and stay profitable instead of just breaking even. But these four people are not numbers. They have families, expenses and lives to maintain. He weighs the needs of his company vs. the needs of these individuals and waits, hoping the economy improves.
Heart plays a huge part in the decisions we make, as does long-term thinking.

Evolving Solution
If the economy continues to remain in this state long enough, people will restructure their lives in the very same way that creatures evolve to adapt to changing environments. If this economy is temporary, we can hold on to our normal ways until it gets better. But if it continues this way – or gets worse – then we need to look at our daily lives with new focus. If we value happiness and personal fulfillment we’ll find ways to lessen financial burdens so our hearts are light enough to enjoy life. We can still go out to dinner and buy new things that give us pleasure if we keep our financial life in balance. In the long run, this is also what will sustain the economy.

Time has a way of bringing our attention to what is most important. Whether young or old, there’s always another opportunity to take a fresh look and make necessary changes if what we value most is life itself.

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