A fortune cookie saved my life. Well, perhaps not my life, but it certainly saved me from spending years stuck doing something I no longer (if ever) believed in.
I worked in fund development (fundraising) for a Catholic charity. This is fairly benign if you’re Catholic. I am not. In fact, I am a 100% pro-gay marriage, pro-choice (abortion and end of life), class-conscious eco-feminist. I don’t care if you make babies. In fact, I encourage you to remain child-free and help reduce the planet’s human load. More to this, I am not inclined to believe in a god that intervenes in our lives and elevates humans to superior animal status, giving us license to pillage whatever we want in the name of America, Allah or Free Market Capitalism. Believing what I do does not always make me everybody’s sweetheart, and certainly not in a neo-conservative state like Arizona, but it is the composition of these beliefs that define my values.
I am a person of faith. I have faith in the natural cycle. I have faith in the sun, the moon, seasons, community, birth and death. I never have to question their power or influence over me. I have faith in well-defined, actionable values. One of my values is tolerance for diverse thoughts and opinions. An action from this value is to curb my judgments.
Values are something we all like to talk about but very rarely understand. I know it was a huge wake-up call for me when someone asked me – in an interview a few years back – to define my values. Er, um, honesty, respect, selflessness… how many do you need again?
I struggled with listing my sincere values, and started to list those I felt the interviewer wanted to hear. My internal monitor censored my deepest values rooted in respect for ALL life, in protecting the land I love even if it means people lose jobs, in advocating for a nation of gardeners and artisans instead of mindless consumers.
Another thing I learned, other than how hard it is to succinctly define my values, is that there are values that evolve and mutate depending on context and application. For example, some values will differ if they are applied to my family as opposed to the world at large. (Insert the quote about “a foolish consistency…” here.) Some are very circumstantial, and some are meta-values that sweep over all aspects of who I am.
Not everyone shares the same values. I repeat, not everyone shares the same values. This may seem like a DUH statement, but I am surprised by how many of us pull one-size-fits-all values over us like an ill-fitting coat. My value to be responsible, for example, and to work hard, informed my faulty thought that “work is work” and “no one likes their job.” I grew up poor in rural America. To discuss one’s job as something that is both interesting and meaningful to some loftier cause is unheard of – no one talks about work unless it is the understood nod of how hard it is to get by. This background and worldview has led me into an accidental career in business, then marketing for for-profits, then into the Catholic charity. I told myself through each of these transitions that I can find my voice there, somewhere I will make a change. And, sometimes small changes were made in recycling procedures, ethical business principles, paper waste reduction, and opening minds and hearts about new ideas. I also met some like-minded coworkers who remain my friends today. However, the nagging feeling remained.
Ultimately, I found myself moving through the day feeling “off,” quietly resenting the coat I had put on. I believed, rather erroneously, that in order to survive this life, I had to simply shut up, keep my head down and get through. At home, my passions and ideas would butterfly into volunteerism, independent projects and being with the natural world, my sense of self restored. I felt the peace I had been seeking in the 40-60 hours each week of being insincere, untrue to my beliefs.
Great change is never gentle. It happens very quickly. The day I read the fortune, “FOLLOW YOUR BELIEFS,” my life changed. My values created this change, but so did circumstances beyond my control. This possible life wanted to be heard all along. It just took a cookie to get me to listen (and a kick in the butt from the universe).
Life is short. We all say it and connect to those tearful end-of-life stories about what matters most. But do we act? Or do we become those who have so many regrets? Values alone mean little without thoughtful, purposeful action. There is suffering, yes, and all paths present obstacles, but the path itself need not be the obstacle.
Now I choose carefully. I let my intuition decide, even when my ego wants to kick and scream. I choose paths that bring me back to what I love, in a way that contributes with honesty, heart and good, old-fashioned work.
If you had a cookie to open today, what would your fortune say?