THE WISDOM OF CHILDREN AND A SELF-TEST ON VALUES

eldoradoWhen I was a kid in Winnipeg, it was something special to be allowed, during the oppressive summer nights (no air conditioning back then) to sleep in the basement. It was pretty spartan, because every couple of years after a heavy summer rain the sewers couldn’t handle the volume of water and basements would flood, so you didn’t put anything in the basement that you couldn’t afford to lose. Our basement had that cheap patterned “wood” paneling on the walls, and the floors had ‘indoor-outdoor’ carpeting (which we called ‘astroturf’) laid right on the concrete, which was cracked and uneven due to winter frost heave. The furniture included two somewhat ratty sofas that folded out into beds (‘chesterfields’), and the Zenith TV, black and white, which in the late fifties was a novelty, but not respectable enough to put upstairs.

You got the English and French CBC channels, and later the CTV private network, and a few years later again if you adjusted the rabbit ears just right you got a very grainy station from Pembina, North Dakota. I used to race home at lunchtime to watch Concentration, moderated by Hugh Downs, on that channel, where you had to match up squares from memory and if you did, they were taken off the board to reveal part of a rebus puzzle that you had to solve to win the prizes you’d matched up. It was followed by the original (black and white) Camouflage game, hosted by Don Morrow (this was 1961, and I was nine) where if you answered questions correctly part part of a jumble of lines disguising an outline picture of some everyday object was removed, and you had the chance to trace the object correctly in 10 seconds to win. I saved up for the ‘home game’ versions of both shows.

The wood paneling separated the room from the laundry room and the workshop where all my Dad’s tools were kept, and which later housed our first shower. The ‘basement room’ was curtained off from the stucco wall, and behind the curtain was storage. But just in front of the curtain lay my favourite toy — a linoleum mat printed with streets and houses that became the village where my imagination ran wild, and which was home to my prized collection of Matchbox Toys (miniature cars made in England of, I believe, solid lead, which probably accounts for at least part of my madness). I used to make up games by sectioning off the ‘roads’ on the lino with crayon, and have different cars race (controlled by a dice roll) to be first complete a designated route (with required stops e.g. ‘to deliver milk’). This was how my creative spark first found vent, and I am still enthralled with the much more sophisticated Playmobil and other ‘village’ sets to this day — as long as there is a playing surface with roads and houses of course.

I was a pretty sociable kid until adolescence hit, and we used to play a lot of games and sports outdoors (even at -40†), but my basement time was solo — just me and my ideas. My brother used to take the other fold-out sofa on the hot summer nights, but he was four years younger than I was, and moved in different circles. But at night we used to talk, or rather, I’d think out loud and he’d play along until he got bored or fell asleep. With cardboard and coloured pencils I had created a ‘dashboard’ for a space ship and tacked it up beside my pillow, so these night-time conversations were mostly role-plays in space, with each of us taking multiple roles (“now I’m the pilot and you’re the engineer”). At first, my dashboards got more sophisticated so I could control the ‘ship’ without moving, but later I simplified it, reasoning “Why have a whole bunch of buttons when you just need one very smart one”. This was in the days before computers. I was of course delighted years later when Star Trek (to which I quickly became addicted) introduced the ‘replicator’ that did just what my one-button bedside dashboard did.

By the standards of the day we weren’t poor, and my ambitions for life were modest. I wanted to travel, all over the world and into space, but I never had material aspirations and if there was any jealousy or envy over possessions among our circle, I wasn’t aware of it. I had no intention of marrying, since that would “tie me down”, and I remember when the series Run for your Life came out five years later (when I was fourteen), featuring Ben Gazzara as a man who discovers he only has a few months to live and spends it traveling all over the planet and enchanting every woman he meets with his bravado and charm, this became my role model. By then I was suffering the anguish of early teenage years, my naive self-esteem shattered by the strange new rituals of my peers, my face ravaged by acne, and my ego and social stature further ruined by my horrendous lack of coordination (an inability to learn how to swim, dance, or properly play a musical instrument). Although I longed for popularity, I never longed for fame or fortune (the game Careers was a hit in those days, and in it you were required to gather a minimum of fame, fortune and happiness by pursuing various careers, but the game seemed kind of silly to me — if you only wanted happiness, why bother pursuing a career at all?)

Well, if you;re still reading, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this. Here’s my point: In my own case, my ambitions in life were set pretty early, and they were (space exploration plans notwithstanding) pretty modest. At various times in my life I have achieved some measure of fame and financial success, but I was always a bit apologetic about them, because I didn’t aspire to them and they never seemed to come to those who wanted them most. I only wanted to be happy, and to learn everything that could be learned. Those personal values have never really changed.

Richard Douthwaite, in his wonderful layman’s book on progressive economics The Growth Illusion, cites a 1970s British survey ranking what participants said were the things that represent and increase quality of life and happiness. Here’s the list in order of ranking:

  1. Good family and home life
  2. General contentment
  3. Financial security and affordability
  4. High standard of living and consumption
  5. Meaningful social values
  6. Personal beliefs
  7. Strong and multiple social relationships
  8. Quality of housing
  9. Quality of health
  10. Quality of work
  11. Personal freedoms
  12. Leisure time and travel
  13. Proximity to natural environment
  14. Quality education
  15. Progress relative to other times and places
  16. Possessions and personal wealth
  17. Freedom from stress
  18. Equality and justice

Respondents were able to check as many answers as they wanted, so there is no ‘vote splitting’ to bias these results. My guess is that thirty years later the answers wouldn’t have changed much, and that for most of us our personal ranking hasn’t changed much since childhood either. We can only guess at why respondents gave such different scores to #2 and #17, and to #4 and #16, but it seems clear that for most people the key to happiness is social rather than economic. Why then do so many of us devote so much of our lives to achieving economic goals? Is it because most of us think we’ve already achieved the social goals? Or is because we’ve deluded ourselves into believing we have more control over the economic goals, and that our social goals will (or won’t) be achieved regardless of our investment in reaching them? Or is it because we have a nagging fear that if we don’t devote most of our waking hours to achieving economic goals (even though we don’t think they’re that important in and of themselves), we will become economic failures, and that economic failure will jeopardize our achievement of our social goals as well?

I suspect, and perhaps I’m guilty of judging other people by myself here, that most of us look at what our peers and our role models have done and what our parents have done and then do what we do because we really don’t know what else to do, how to live any differently. The harried, hierarchical, partly-fulfilling and partly-anxious way we go about our lives is the only way we know to live. We don’t see any credible alternative models presented in schools, or on television. So although there is some fear involved (just look at the face of anyone who has just passed a homeless person if you don’t believe me), I think most of us do what we do, haplessly contributing to our ruinous and unsustainable economy, largely because no one has shown us any alternatives. We have unwittingly come to believe that there is no choice, and as a result our culture has become monolithic. Our instinctive rankling at being told this is what we must do, this is how we must live, is discharged by the vendors of consumer products who give us astonishing choice when it comes to things that (if you believe the above list) don’t really matter. We are seduced by this comforting deception, and before we know it we are part of the machine, we are addicted to consumption and to the debt that allows us to finance yet more consumption.

The list itself is rigged, ‘framed’, semantically aligned with the objectives of passivity and enslavement of economic man in pursuit of perpetual growth. Family and home are a respite, a refuge from the daily grind, the prison of our jobs. The word ‘community’ is not even mentioned in the survey. Housing and health are the carrots we are perpetually chasing and never quite catching — we work long, hard hours because without toil we can not be sure, even in this world of staggering abundance, that we won’t suddenly be without housing, health, and other necessities of life. No one has ever taught us, or showed us, that there is, or was once and could and should be again a way to achieve all of the above ‘quality of life’ ends (except #4 and #16), and many other important ends not listed in the survey, without participating in our growth-and-consumption-and-debt economy. This is why we need to create Model Intentional Communities.

Give yourself this self-test of your definition of quality of life, and of your personal values:

  1. Rate on a scale of 1-10 how important each of the eighteen factors listed above is to human quality of life.
  2. Now go back and ask yourself which are ‘ends’ in themselves, and which are primarily ‘means to ends’, in other words, which do you think are important only because you perceive them to be necessary to achieve other factors that are important in and of themselves. Be a reckless idealist for a minute, pretend these ‘means to ends’ factors are not necessary to achieve those other factors, and strike them off the list. For this exercise, we’re only interested in the ends.
  3. Next, ask yourself what’s missing from the list. Imagine a perfect world, like the one with Star Trek’s replicator (“Tea, Earl Grey. Hot. Black. Thank you computer”). Pretend you’re a child. Dream big. Add and rate the additional factors you come up with.
  4. Now list the five factors you have rated highest. For each of those five factors, grade yourself on your achievement at this point in your life of these factors.
  5. I would suggest the average grade you give yourself in step 4 represents the true quality of your own life. I’ll also guess, just to be mischievous, that this average grade isn’t as high as you might have rated your quality of life in the ‘real’ world, or as high as others would rate your quality of life.

Of course the final step is to ask yourself what changes you need to make to improve your self-scores. And, more importantly, what changes we need to make, all of us, together, to improve everyone’s scores. I’m guessing that a lot of those changes will be impossible in the current economy, but that if we built a new economy, focused on sustainability and egalitarianism and well-being, not only would they be possible, they’d be easy, even inevitable.

I’ll share my answers to the above self-test in a couple of days. I’d be delighted to hear your answers, and especially to see the factors you added in step 3. Who knows, we might be on a road to building a new, collective value system for the next human culture.

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4 Responses to THE WISDOM OF CHILDREN AND A SELF-TEST ON VALUES

  1. Cyndy says:

    Human quality of life need only be measured by one ‘end’. 1. General contentmentAll others are ‘means’ whether individually or collectively.Missing from the list is a clean inhabitable environment, food and energy sources capable of sustaining existing life, tolerance and respected diversity through thought and deed. What ‘we’ need to do is combine some of the ‘means’, particularly equality and justice, expand them to include health care, basic shelter and education and we would go far toward improving human quality of life which would be measurable by the general contentment of the world population.I find ‘personal beliefs’ and ‘meaningful social values’ problematic when applied to the criteria of ‘human quality of life’ simply because they are subjective. When applied to one’s personal life they become very important but then ‘personal freedoms’and the unmentioned ‘tolerance’ come into play. I would rate my personal perception of my immediate ‘general contentment’ a B- , however, when I look at the whole picture of general contentment I have to give it a near failing grade. It is a collective contentment which often intrudes into the personal. When others suffer I suffer. I suppose that gives my collective grade a D+. I think others might rate their perception of my quality of life lower than I because they would be rating based on their personal criteria. Many things that are important to others simply are not important to me. My drum is tuned differently.Thinking of the tea in your example, I have to say I am currently on a Yogi Tea brand Ginger flavor kick. The Black Chai of the same brand is exceptional too. Yum!I had my little city too but it was built outside in the dirt in the backyard. The roads were made using a block of wood to grade with and the houses and stores were mounds of dirt. The matchbox cars belonged to my brother. Some of my best memories. Thanks!

  2. 10 General contentment8 Personal freedoms9 Equality and justice8 Quality of health7 A deep sense of connection to others10 Peace7 Living in self-sufficient and interdependant communities9 Empowerment9 A sense of belonging10 Personal self-worth8 Oompetence 1. Rate on a scale of 1-10 how important each of the eighteen factors listed above is to human quality of life.Done, but don’t have the full list. I have to quibble with two of these. As a homeschooling parent I would say that quality education is no substitute for quality learning experiences. I don’t have great faith that the public education system can deliver on that, so I have chosen to rate that factor based on the idea that learning is the thing.The other one is “justice” I think equality is critical. I think justice needs to be seen in the light of processes like “reconciliation” which is a more progressive way to move through large scale social differences. 2. Now go back and ask yourself which are ‘ends’ in themselves, and which are primarily ‘means to ends’, in other words, which do you think are important only because you perceive them to be necessary to achieve other factors that are important in and of themselves. Be a reckless idealist for a minute, pretend these ‘means to ends’ factors are not necessary to achieve those other factors, and strike them off the list. For this exercise, we’re only interested in the ends.Here are the ends, rated:10 General contentment8 Personal freedoms9 Equality and justice8 Quality of healthI noticed that I rated the ends higher than the means. 3. Next, ask yourself what’s missing from the list. Imagine a perfect world, like the one with Star Trek’s replicator (“Tea, Earl Grey. Hot. Black. Thank you computer”). Pretend you’re a child. Dream big. Add and rate the additional factors you come up with.Here are the additional ones (rated) 7 A deep sense of connection toothers10 Peace7 Living in self-sufficient and interdependant communities9 Empowerment9 A sense of belonging10 Personal self-worth8 Oompetence4. Now list the five factors you have rated highest. For each of those five factors, grade yourself on your achievement at this point in your life of these factors.A General contentment B+ PeaceA EmpowermentB+ A sense of belongingA- Personal self-worth 5. I would suggest the average grade you give yourself in step 4 represents the true quality of your own life. I’ll also guess, just to be mischievous, that this average grade isn’t as high as you might have rated your quality of life in the ‘real’ world, or as high as others would rate your quality of life.I think that’s fair. Not sure if others would rate my life higher than I have. I tend to be an optimist and see myself in a more positive light than others do.Noting the tension betwen factors over which I have a great degree on influence nad those which require others to help co-create. I’ve rated myself in the Peace one for example at how wel I contribute to the overall peacefulness of my world.

  3. 1. Rate on a scale of 1-10 how important each of the eighteen factors listed above is to human quality of life.10-Good Family and home life.10-General Contentment.6-Financial security and affordability.2-High standard of living and consumption.8-Meaningful social values.6-Personal beliefs.9-Strong and multiple social relationships.6-Quality of housing.9-Quality of health.7-Quality of work.6-Personal freedoms.2-Leisure time and travel.7-Proximity to natural environment.2-Quality education.1-Progress relative to other times and places.3-Posessions and personal wealth.4-Freedom from stress.7-Equality and justice. 2. Now go back and ask yourself which are ‘ends’ in themselves, and which are primarily ‘means to ends’, in other words, which do you think are important only because you perceive them to be necessary to achieve other factors that are important in and of themselves. Be a reckless idealist for a minute, pretend these ‘means to ends’ factors are not necessary to achieve those other factors, and strike them off the list. For this exercise, we’re only interested in the ends.Ends rated:10-Good Family and home life.10-General Contentment.8-Meaningful social values.6-Personal beliefs.9-Strong and multiple social relationships.6-Personal freedoms.7-Proximity to natural environment.7-Equality and justice.3. Next, ask yourself what’s missing from the list. Imagine a perfect world, like the one with Star Trek’s replicator (“Tea, Earl Grey. Hot. Black. Thank you computer”). Pretend you’re a child. Dream big. Add and rate the additional factors you come up with.6-Stories: telling and hearing9-Flow: activities that are engaging in a deep, meditative way9-Novelty: change to keep life fresh10-Creativity10-Large mind: the result of meditation and silence7-A big, unfinishable project which benefits the world, like Open source or the ecological movement.9-Pets and plants: direct everyday contact with other species in a positive way4. Now list the five factors you have rated highest. For each of those five factors, grade yourself on your achievement at this point in your life of these factors.A+ Good family and home life.A Quality of health.A Strong and multiple social relationships.A Meaningful social values.A- General contentment. 5. I would suggest the average grade you give yourself in step 4 represents the true quality of your own life. I’ll also guess, just to be mischievous, that this average grade isn’t as high as you might have rated your quality of life in the ‘real’ world, or as high as others would rate your quality of life.I believe I have an ‘A’ life. I’d tend to rate my ‘real’ world life that way, and I don’t know (or care ) how other people would rate my quality of life. Though just this week, a friend mentioned at dinner that my husband and I live at the peak of a Maslow-ian technological pyramid.

  4. Robert Cooke says:

    I think the previous commentators and Dave in his discussion all imply that item #2, financial security and affordability is a “means”, but I think it’s just a too narrowly described “end”. When JK Rowling was asked by Larry King how her life had changed since Harry Potter made her rich, she said that the main difference was that she no longer had to continually worry about how she would pay the bills or buy food, and that gave her immense comfort. Part of general contentment is not just being content with your life and world up to now, but also having some confidence that you and your family (and perhaps other people or all of society) are going to continue to be ok in the future. In our world, that confidence comes in part from financial security. However even in the ideal, egalitarian, sustainable world, people will still need evidence or a rationale to reassure themselves that the future is secure. Perhaps item #17, freedom from stress partially captures this too, in that often what stresses people most is worry about an uncertain future.To the list of ends, I would add the opportunity to be mentally stimulated or challenged, and I would augment or supplement the item on strong social relationships, by saying that we (also) need the respect, esteem and/or approval of others to be content.

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