A Bit of Advice for People Who Think They Ought to Have Others’ Approval–or God’s Approval–for What They Value

If you look around you and find that you’re the only person who values a particular thing, you need to have the self esteem to say, “It still has value for me.” And if you don’t value what others value–or what God supposedly values–fine. Let them value it. If it has value for them, it needn’t have value for you.

Bandwagon appeals–“Everybody’s doing it!”–externalize values. They’re manipulative of our desire to belong, outsourcing values to other people. They work most effectively on those lacking in inner confidence.

And the contention between values is typically a war over who will be in the subject, and who in the object, position. (Or, to put it in Hegelian terms, who will be Master and who slave–the Master-slave dichotomy.)

Drop this dynamic with people altogether–and even with God. You don’t have to submit your values to others for their approval, and they don’t need your approval either. You don’t need to be a Hegelian tool fit to some other person’s purposes–or even to God’s purposes. Let people and God take care of themselves.

Two supports for this view. The first is Albert Camus. Camus surmised that neither God nor Nature answer to our human longings, and therefore existence is absurd. We can respond to the absurdity with suicide, but we needn’t do that. Instead, if neither God nor Nature will value us, we can do it. We can value ourselves. We can be a rebel for meaning and value against suicide and the absurd (the lacking in care for us of God and Nature). Add people’s disapproval, cruelty, and indifference to us, and we can use Camus’ idea of rebellion against the absurd on them as well. Just as we refuse suicide in the teeth of God’s and Nature’s indifference, so we refuse to internalize the indifference of others. God, Nature, and others might not affirm or save us, but we can affirm and save ourselves. From the absurd, Camus took his rebellion, freedom, passion, and solidarity. Nothing and no one else needed to authorize his values, but himself.

Following Camus, this means we don’t need God, Nature, or others to authorize our values or to give us hope for the future. We don’t need to treat this trinity as our patrons (as being in the caring and rescuing business on our behalf). Instead, we can deal with reality exactly as it appears, and see ourselves for what we are: beings toward death (Heidegger). We can replace future hope with passion for our present projects (which may include art or compassionate solidarity with other people in the same bad existential situation that we are in–two of Camus’ examples). Put another way, we can align ourselves with people who need and want to align themselves with us, and we can take care of ourselves, and choose what we value. We can be adults at play. (Taking up values needn’t always be a serious affair.)

The second support for locating the warrant for what you value in yourself alone is evolution. Walt Whitman, writing after Darwin and long experience meditating upon Nature, wrote in the first sentence of his essay, “Democratic Vistas” (1871), that Nature’s lessons are two: “variety and freedom.” To put it in Darwinian language, there are lots and lots of ways that an organism can be in the world, and lots and lots of evolutionary strategies for surviving (from strategies of cooperation to selfishness; of displaying to hiding). Values, from the vantage of Nature, are an open field with lots of diversity. In fact, that’s how things change. Through dicing diversity. Whatever works.

So if you value a thing, it doesn’t need to diminish in value for you because others don’t value it. And when you say, “You ought to value what I value,” or “I ought to value what someone else (or God) values,” try to recall, when you say such things, that you’ve lapsed into a power play of subject-object, Master-slave.

Then try this instead. With Emily Dickinson (and in the light of Camus, Whitman, Darwin, and evolution), say, “I am ‘a kangaroo among the beauty’!–a contingently evolved oddity with contingent values that belong to me–and perhaps only to me.”

That might free you up a bit to be what you want–and to value what you want.

If you like a particular subject in school, or a particular political cause, go for it. If you like art, get into art. Be free. You are free.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to A Bit of Advice for People Who Think They Ought to Have Others’ Approval–or God’s Approval–for What They Value

  1. For some reason this made me think of Wittgenstein’s “beetle” in the box.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Thanks for pointing out the beetle observation. In terms of using a private language, I’m still using English, just rearranging words in my own way. And if others like the way I’m rearranging words, and I like their way of saying things, then we might find solidarity and a common language. I’m thinking more Emerson/Whitman than Wittgenstein here. Make it new with the old language. You can’t escape history.

  2. “I’m thinking more Emerson/Whitman than Wittgenstein here. Make it new with the old language. You can’t escape history.”

    I feel much solidarity with this idea. And I jive on your common language…But maybe realizing in part the absurdity of the idea that you “can’t escape history” can, well, allow you to escape history…

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Necromancer:

      Hmm. Make your own reality, like Karl Rove?

      Maybe I should have put it this way: you’ve got to play the cards that you were dealt (that’s the “can’t escape history” part), but how you play those cards is your existential choice (existence before essence). In Sartrean terms, being-in-itself (history; facts; objects; our existential situation) becomes, in our launching off from it, being-for-itself.

      So we choose.

      But after we choose, history asserts itself again, and we lose control of the consequences of our choice rather quickly. The choice shifts appearances in the passing of time. Like the flap of a butterfly’s wing, there’s no telling, the further the choice moves away from us, how it might reverberate, to our astonishment, through the cosmic ecosystem.

      That’s the irony. We can respond to history in a free, surprising, and creative manner, but history responds to us as well. Our selection meets Nature’s selection again and again. It’s a dance. You select, Nature selects. It’s the law of unintended consequences; the stuff for tragedy; the machine driving human evolution toward computer super-intelligence.

      Better to do nothing? That too is a choice.

      Where do we go from here, Dr. Frankenstein?

      “It’s Franken-steen!”

      • Santi,

        “Make you own reality, like Carl Rove?” That reality reminds me of the PKD quote: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Alas.

        Anyway, you outline the Faustian dilemma’s here. Hilariously. What to do? What to do?

        Maybe a good start would be making a more powerful argument for the actual existence of “cosmic ecosystem”. The current paradigm seems to be tracing out some pretty hardwired commitments to linearity and clear causality.

        Not sure where we go…

        Here?

        Or here?

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Ha!

        Where from here? Well, anywhere, like here:

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