When I was in the cub scouts, we stood for things, like honesty, loyalty, justice, fair play. And we knew that Superman stood for “Truth, justice, and the American Way.” It was cool to stand for something, although we had no idea what it meant. All that changed in the late 1960s, when we decided that what we’d been told to stand for was someone else’s values—“the man’s,” we called it. The man’s values led to mindless conformity, empty materialism, class struggle, and war. So we embarked on a drug culture that separated feeling good from doing good.
Standing for something remains out of favor in the current age of entitlement. Our judgments and behavior generally derive from feelings and self-interests rather than values, even though we now know that behavior motivated by feelings and self-interests rarely produces long-term wellbeing. Now more than ever, we need a paraphrase of Thoreau’s famous admonition, “Feel not simply good, feel good for something.”
It’s been observed that we’re mired in an epidemic of problem anger and resentment. (Problem anger and resentment either make you do something against your long-term best interests or keep you from doing what is in your long term best interests.) I believe this is due, in no small part, to not knowing what we stand for, which turns us into powerless reactaholics. Ironically, the less we know what we stand for, the more intolerant we become, increasing the likelihood that we’ll devalue anyone who fails to validate whatever we’re feeling at the moment. In contrast, standing for our deeper humane values, e.g., compassion and kindness, moves us to tolerate those who differ from us.
Ignoring or violating deeper values makes us vulnerable to guilt, shame, and anxiety. We have more self-doubt and, to some extent, seem phony, which greatly increases our chances of feeling devalued by others. We become hypersensitive to unfair treatment we receive but largely insensitive to unfair treatment we impart. We perceive more threat and require more anger as defense.
Worst of all, consistently ignoring and violating humane values can turn us into psychopaths, individually and as a culture, as history shows in 20th Century Nazis and 19th Century slave owners.
The best way to eliminate the ego vulnerability that so often leads to destruction is to strengthen who you are, what you believe in, and what you stand for. You will feel more authentic and far less vulnerable, with little need for anger and resentment. For the next three weeks, try the following experiment.
Begin by listing five things that you “stand for,” i.e., those things that are the most important to you, worthy of your time, energy, and sacrifice. (Example: fairness, hard work, integrity, compassion, kindness):
Make all the things you listed above the motivation, guide, and measure of all your behavior for the next three weeks. To the extent that you’re successful, you’ll notice substantial improvement in authenticity and wellbeing. Then there will be no need to paraphrase Thoreau; we won’t just be good, we’ll be good for something.”