The mistake we make living our values

The mistake we make living our values

My grandmother, Iginia Alamo, once befriended a woman intent on ousting my grandfather, Antonio Alamo, from the Venezuelan government. My grandfather didn’t object to the friendship. In fact, he instigated it.

The family foe and friend, Maria Josefa Aristeguieta, had recently co-led a nearly successful insurrection that had killed a governor, among many others. My grandfather was the newly appointed replacement for the deceased governor and, thus, a target for Maria Josefa’s activism.

How did my grandparents end up cozying up to a dangerous antagonist? Soon after my grandfather assumed his governorship, the police chief boasted that his men were humiliating Maria Josefa with intrusive surveillance while she was under house arrest. Instead of being thankful, my grandfather ordered the police overreach to stop immediately. After completing her sentence, Maria Josefa visited my grandmother to express her gratitude. The two became friends.

I arrived on the planet a decade after my grandfather had left it, so was unable to ask him why he was kind to someone aiming for his demise. Based on family lore, however, I suspect it’s because he insisted that his values trump his judgment. He refused to allow his opinion of others sully his behavior toward them.

Today in the United States, on the other hand, we seem to adjust the expression of our values in accordance to how deserving we judge the beneficiaries to be. I recently attended a call where a manager announced that he “valued gratitude” and proceeded to thank his superiors, but not his direct reports, for accommodating the evening meeting time. It’s not much of a value if it excludes most people. Similarly, I’ve heard Americans brush aside their belief in assumed innocence until proven guilty because they found the individual in question detestable. Put in my grandfather’s position, I suspect many of us modern Americans would find a way to rationalize mistreatment of our enemy. We might say, “Not my problem – I didn’t call for the surveillance,” “she brought this on herself,” “she wouldn’t do the same for me if the tables were turned” or even “God is punishing her.”

Foregoing our values when those who benefit, in our view, don’t merit them seems commonplace. I also think it’s costly. When we stray from our principles, we disappoint ourselves – even if only subconsciously. We likely tarnish our fun a shade, disrupt our sleep a notch and dampen our spirit a level. Allowing others to undermine our values gives them the power to undermine our happiness. Is it coincidence that my grandfather had a reputation for injecting joy in everything he did? Maybe not.

A few years after Maria Josefa entered their lives, my grandparents faced another threat. A machete-carrying mob arrived at their house chanting two orders: “Leave now Dr. Alamo!” and “Off with your head, Dr. Alamo!” My grandfather walked onto his front yard, faced the fist-pumping and weapon-waving crowd and said, “You need to get on the same page. If you want me to leave, I’ll need my head.” The mob dissolved in laughter.

I see this incident as not only evidence of my grandfather’s irrepressible cheer but also of his ability to disassociate judgment from values. At some level, he had to have formed negative opinions of the individuals threatening his wife and children, including a chubby six-year-old who would become my mother. He likely had at least a fleeting thought that they were murderous thugs. Yet, he treated them as he would his beloved drinking buddies. He joked. His opinion of others did not corrupt who he was.

My husband, Doug, scraped our neighbors’ gleaming BMW with his ebike a few weeks ago. Doug had ample justification to not reveal himself as the culprit and, frankly, to “stick it” to the affected couple. They’re the only inhabitants of our four-unit building who never roll the community trash bins to or from the curb, routinely leave fast-food remnants in public areas for the rest of us to pick up and park their cars without consideration for others. They also rebuff our efforts to talk, their body language suggesting they’re too busy or too important for us. In other words, they’re consistently rude, inconsiderate and antisocial. It’s easy to argue that they don’t deserve kindness or fair treatment.

Like my grandfather, though, Doug does not give others the power to diminish who he has chosen to be. He immediately took responsibility for the damage and covered the repair costs. By the way, Doug is also exceptionally good at experiencing and spreading joy. Another coincidence? Maybe not.

Doug and I saw the neighbors a few days after their vehicle’s flawless polish was restored. We greeted them warmly. As with my grandparents, did a new friendship sprout? No. Our neighbors gave us their customary scowling snub. It’s an unfortunate ending, but it’s also a reminder that their response is irrelevant. Values are about us, not others. Doing what’s right should withstand whatever loathsomeness others do.

One more thing. I think I saw Doug’s lips twitch into a faint smile the moment our neighbors spurned us.

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