A Tale of Two Truths: The Myth of “American Values”

It’s nearing the end of the school year, which means freedom for my 7-year old (and — hallelujah — no more lunch packing for me!!). It also brings an onslaught of year-end activities all crammed into these precious last few weeks of school. The dance program, the music program, open house, sports day…each bringing carloads of parents and grandparents to school.

Last week, it was the music program. Cuties aged 5 to 13 singing and dancing — who could miss that?! Parking as usual was scarce, so cars lined the street up and down from the school. Harried families squeezed cars wherever they might fit so they could dash in and out of school to keep the hours-away-from-work to a minimum.

In the minutes before the show started one of the teachers announced (as they usually do at these events) that a car was parked too close to a homeowner’s driveway and needed to be moved. As he rattled off the license plate number, I couldn’t help but overhear two very different conversations springing up on my left and on my right.

On one side, parents were talking about how disrespectful and rude the driver was to not follow the “don’t park closer than ten feet away from a driveway” rule that is also apparently the Fairfax County law. “Those homeowners have got to hate when the school has events,” said one mom. “Yes, parents park so close to their driveways, it has to be hard to get in and out,” replied her companion.

On the other side, parents were clearly unhappy that a homeowner had called the school. “Don’t they have anything better to do?” asked one. “There are so few places to park — what does it matter, as long as they can get in the driveway?” said the other.

As the angelic kindergardeners, full of innocence and hope, sang their songs, I marveled at how the adults around me somehow held such wildly different beliefs.

Two truths. Equally held. Vehemently defended. Clearly this was much more about values than vehicles.

The Myth of “American Values”

We hear the phrase “American values” all the time. But what does that really mean? Do we indeed have one homogenous set of beliefs? Beyond platitudes like freedom, independence, and patriotism, is there actually a common set of specific values that unite us all?

One thing it seems we can all agree on is that our values are in trouble. Only 1% of us think our country’s values are excellent, and 77% of us think our values are getting worse. But which values are we referring to? And what would “better” look like? My guess is that we have wildly different answers to those questions.

The election and post-election narratives have exposed these differences to their raw, ugly core. But the election and politics have really just given license to express what lies beneath the surface.

Like my 7-year old on the monkey bars, we hang with one hand clinging to the industrial past while we swing forward with our other hand grasping for the next era — one driven by technology, wildly unimaginable and massively disruptive. It’s scary — where is that next wrung, will we be able to grab hold or will we fall to the dirt and danger below us? A lot of us, it seems, are dangling and in pain. In this moment when the very social, political and economic fabric of our nation is in flux, our values are being exposed.

Refining Like Gold

Like gold being refined in a 2,000 degree furnace, character is revealed in crisis. Today’s economic, political, technical, and social chaos is causing us to ask some difficult questions that we’ve let lie for decades. What, truly, do we believe? How do we prioritize our beliefs? How do we choose to act — not when life is perfect, but when the muck and mess of political dischord and economic upheaval feel chaotic and unwieldy?

It is in this moment that we can (must) ask ourselves what we believe. Not as a nation, but as individuals. My guess is, most of us have never taken that hard look in the mirror to purposefully choose our beliefs or done the heavy lifting to determine how we will actually live out those chosen values.

A wise friend once told me “people show you (not tell you) who they are.” We show what we value through our actions.

When I cooked dinner for my neighbor just home from the emergency room, I’m living a value. And, when I lost my temper with the manager of the bagel store one crowded Saturday (um…yeah…because…stress…motherhood…), I unfortunately showed my son something about my values. And, since that was not my finest moment, I promplty also showed my son how to humbly apologize for a wrong…yet another value.

That morning in the school gym made me stop and think because I could see merit in both groups of parents’ views.

What do I value? Yes, I believe in things like freedom, independence and equality. But I also believe in kindness, patience, tenderness, grace, forgiveness, honesty, courtesy, caring, compassion, gratitude, hope, tolerance, optimism…

But my beliefs have to be more than words on paper. They are revealed in the every day choices I make, in how I behave when I’m afraid, short on time, feeling frazzled and reaching peak stress levels and in how I (purposefully) choose to live despite how others around me choose to behave. If I’m being honest, I have some work to do here.

Whether I live in an industrial society or robots rule the world, whether a Democrat or Republican occupies the White House, whether I’m rich or poor, and no matter how chaotic the world around me seems, I can (must) take the time to define, own and control my own values.

We all must. Our collective values are not something that some authority on high decides. Congress doesn’t get a vote. We all do — one person at at time, choosing for him or herself what to believe and how to act (especially in the face of chaos). And, if enough of us decide that kindness will win over fear, or honesty will win over truth, or caring will win over selfishness, then together we can make those things pilars of how we behave as a nation.

Dalai Lama said it well: “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.”