What is Truly Important?
A question of values, of priorities. And a good question I try to revisit often throughout my life.
When I pose this question to myself, my mind goes in two directions;
- I look at the question from the perspective of some future human living in the distant future. If something in my world, or sphere of influence is still important to this distant descendant 10,000+ years from now, then it’s a good candidate for something that’s TRULY important. This long time horizon conveniently washes away transient cultural trends, political factions, and fashions of the day, leaving the more lasting, perennial aspects of life.
- Another part of my mind reflects back on my past personal experiences to identify what were the most impactful and meaningful things, events, and people throughout my life. This gives me a more personal, subjective, but still relevant sense of what is truly important in life, and, thus, where to focus my energy and attention.
In response to perspective #2, the most impactful and meaningful things in my life have been things like love, human connections, family, creative expressions, wonder, knowledge, education, and so on. Perhaps a bit cliche, but meaningful and important nonetheless.
Then when I switch perspectives to the distant future, I can’t really form close personal bonds with those future people, nor do I know what kinds of art or literature will be meaningful to them. But I DO know that without basic physiological needs like clean water, clean air and nourishing food, they would struggle to focus on whatever they find important or meaningful.
Those necessities are only possible if the ecological life support systems of the earth are intact and thriving. These complex living communities of millions of species of plants, animals, insects, fungi and more represent our ancient origins millions of years ago, and will remain as the basis upon which all life will still depend thousands and millions of years from now. So, from this view, I can maximize my positive impact by restoring and protecting the living biotic communities of the earth. Once established, a forest can last for thousands of years, providing for many human generations as well as millions of other species.
In this essay, I’ll be exploring some possible ways that these two different perspectives could be merged in creative ways to provide us with useful guidance on orienting our lives toward what’s truly important. I’ll also share a case study as an example of what this might look like in practice.
But first, why is it important to examine this question in the first place?
This question matters because of the unavoidable ethical question we’re confronted with on a daily basis: How should I spend this day?
Each day, I make hundreds of small choices. These choices, when repeated, form habits. These habits become my way of life. And there are vastly different ways of life. Some ways of life bring about conflict, suffering, and isolation, while others bring about health, wholeness, and meaning.
What informs these choices, then? As social creatures, we tend to imitate one another a lot. There are common habitual patterns of thought and behavior that are passed on to each new generation of people within a society, both through formal education as well as those absorbed informally. These patterns are typically built on a shared understanding of the world, and our place in it; our worldview or “Consensus Reality,” as I’ve heard it called before. Even sub-cultures that frame their identities in contrast or opposition to this status quo, tend to have their own collection of prescribed thought and behavior patterns and their own worldview those patterns are based upon. This shared understanding of the world includes a set of values or priorities that categorizes certain aspects of these realities as “more important” and “less important.”
I’ve noticed that when I don’t take the time to live intentionally and examine each thought and action, I tend to fall back into these habitual, socially programmed patterns. I imagine them sort of like ruts in a trail that pull my tires back into them. It might be easier to stay in the ruts, but the destination this well-worn trail is headed towards might not be somewhere that anyone wants to visit.
But that’s all a bunch of abstract bullshit. How does this help me figure out what IS truly important, down here in the ‘real world’ of endless bills, dirty dishes, and check engine lights?
There’s something helpfully gripping about our basic physiological needs. If you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper construction traffic on the freeway, and you have to piss so bad your bladder is about to burst, then it’s going to be difficult to focus on resolving your childhood trauma, as important as that self-work may be.
That doesn’t mean finding a place to relieve your bladder is “more important” than resolving inner conflict, for instance. But some things have an urgency that gives them a kind of temporary importance to us. While other things nourish us in deeper ways and are important because they give our lives greater meaning. These deeper things don’t command our attention in the same way, so if we don’t intentionally take time to focus on them, it’s easy to neglect them and fall back into habitual patterns, losing a sense of this pursuit of meaning.
During his imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camps, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed that prisoners who had some deeper reason to live, some greater sense of meaning to their lives, were better able to endure the suffering and ended up living much longer than the prisoners who lacked this.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
This same tension between the “how” and the “why” is playing out on a broader scale. It’s wonderful if a culture can produce great art, literature, science, and poetry (the “why”). But without adequate food, water, and shelter (the “how”) most artists would find their creativity quite stifled and distracted. This brings us back to the life support systems on which all life depends; the source of our food, water, air, and secure shelter.
Trends like habitat loss, climate destabilization, intensifying resource extraction, and the toxification of our air, land, and water are making it more difficult and expensive to get these basic needs. Each day, more people struggle to meet the “how” of living, facing crushing student loans, medical bills, and the rapidly increasing cost of living.
There are, of course, other socioeconomic factors at play, including increasing wealth inequality and political corruption, that are driving this trend, and those need to be addressed as well. But it’s important to keep things in their proper order here. We cannot have a healthy democracy, a healthy economy, or a just society within a deteriorating ecology. Our political and economic systems and all other human-made machinations are sub-sets of the ecology.
It’s easy to take these things for granted if you and those around you aren’t facing immediate deprivation. I try to remind myself often to be grateful when I have the freedom and comfort to focus on the more ‘meaningful’ aspects of life, like creating art, spending time with loved ones, or pursuing knowledge. But, just like the person stuck in traffic whose bladder is about to burst, when my physiological needs are going unmet, they quickly become my top priority.
What if there were ways we could go about meeting these basic needs (the ‘how’) that simultaneously restore and preserve ecological health for future generations and other species? That could be some truly important work for both today and our distant descendants. Instead of ‘mere survival’ being a distraction from what’s more meaningful in life, perhaps we can discover a poetry and deeper purpose in providing for such “basic” biological needs. The “Why” within the “How.”
In fact, given the slow (and sometimes fast) breakdown of basic services in regions around the world, a renaissance in the ancient art form of cooperative subsistence living in a way that preserves and promotes ecological health, might be just what’s needed to address the impoverishment in both basic needs and deeper meaning that many are feeling these days.
This artful merging of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ may also give us a clue about how and why our modern industrial society has gotten to the point of undermining its own future stability.
When the oceans tuna fish are seen (worldview) and treated (behavior patterns) as merely a ‘how’ humans can feed their physiological need for food, the Tuna are robbed of all other value they may hold.
In other words, they are treated as merely a means to an end, instead of ends in themselves.
We are witnessing this logic carried to its extreme, as the most powerful human institutions (governments and corporations) relegate more and more of our world into the category of “means” towards the end of increasing revenue; the ‘how’ shareholders get a positive return on their investments (ROI).
This is completely backward. Money has no intrinsic value and shouldn’t be treated as anything more than a “means” to more important ends, such as human well-being and the flourishing of nature’s ancient wonders. Instead, human and nature’s well-being are sacrificed at the altar of this tool of exchange; this mere ‘means;’ money.
Given that our civilization now has the power to erase entire species from existence, (including our own) on accident, I think it’s important to revisit the idea of the ‘sacred.’ While this term carries with it some religious baggage that might be unappealing, I think it could still be a useful category to bring back into our culture, values, and practices.
The ‘sacred’ could simply be understood as those things of greatest importance. An old-growth forest, an endangered species, an unpolluted water table. Such things are treasures that bring life, joy, and awe to all generations. They’re the culmination of billions of years of the unfolding of life and could never be recreated or replaced by us once lost.
Their continued existence and protection are more important than any individual person, or even any human generation, no matter how badly they’ve gotten themselves into debt. The sacred are the non-negotiables. Their importance cannot be measured in monetary terms, and if one were to dedicate their entire life to the protection of just one of these sacred things, it would be considered a life well spent.
Getting back to the questions, ‘What is truly important’ and Victor’s corollary, ‘What gives life meaning,’ one potential answer could be nourishing, protecting, and advocating for the intrinsic meaning of all those (human and non-human) who’ve been devalued and exploited as mere means by the dominating socio-economic system.
If that follows, then the next question is what does a socio-economic model that DOES value all things as ends-in-themselves look like? One that honors and protects the sacred? Or perhaps more appropriately, what does such a culture look like, and how do we get from here to there?
Are these important questions to be asking, given the current historical context of this moment in which our day-to-day choices are embedded? It seems so to me, but those questions might be better saved for another time. However, on that note, I’ll leave you with one story that I think might help give us a glimpse of what such a culture might look like, and how we could go about creating it.
“For thousands of years the Native peoples of North America thrived on the great plains, a landscape that is often perceived to be desolate and barren. A key subsistence practice was communal hunting of the large game that existed there – bison.” (source)
“Daily life and ceremonies revolved around the sacred respect the Plains Indians had for the bison — or Pte Oyate. Pte Oyata means buffalo nation or people, and pte means cow and is the root word for many buffalo terms. Bison were a symbol of life and abundance. The Plains Indians had more than 150 different uses for the various bison parts. The bison provided them with meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter, and horns and bones for tools. They would even use the bladder to hold water. For the Plains Indians, bison equaled survival.
The Plains Indians believed they shared the Earth with their animal relatives, especially the bison. They would end their ceremonies and every prayer with the expression ‘Mitakuye Oyasin’, or ‘all are related/all my relations’ to express gratitude for the connectedness of life.
The bison gave the gift of life by sacrificing its own: the flesh and blood of the bison were a part of the flesh and blood of the Plains Indians. Post-hunt ceremonies were performed to thank the spirits for the bison that were killed, and the Plains Indians were thankful for the gifts the bison provided them every day. Everything the Plains Indians needed for life, the bison provided from its body.” (source)
One archaeologist, Oetelaar, “focusing on Alberta Canada and Montana, US, … proposes that the groups in the northern plains actively planted grasses and used low-intensity fires to create a landscape that was more inviting to the Bison” (source)
“In 1991, delegates from 19 tribes gathered to give the American bison a new lease on life. In forming the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), the delegates hoped to restore the bison to millions of acres of tribal lands — and to a central place in tribal life. So far, more than 40 tribes have joined the effort, which has helped create a collective herd of almost 10,000 animals.” (source)
To me, there is something profoundly poetic and meaningful in the way efforts like these weave back together our human culture and ancestry, natural science and history, and meeting our basic physiological needs in ways that honor and uplift each participant as ‘ends in themselves’ instead of a means.
Finally, I’ll try to bring all these perspectives together here.
What is truly important, both to the people we love today in our immediate lives as well as distant future generations, given the current context of the unique times we’re living in? We are seeing society becoming more and more detached from its own history and traditional cultures, natural ecosystems unraveling, species dying off en mass, and more people struggling to meet their basic needs. I think what is truly important now, is to participate in healing work that addresses these multiple wounds simultaneously and holistically. And I think that work will look as much like art as science and require our full creative faculties to conjure into being.