You may think you know your values. Until you test them, you probably don’t. Understanding their boundaries helps you understand them better. Testing them in controlled situations prepares you for surprises others aren’t prepared for. Preparation like that makes for effective leadership of yourself and others.
If you never plan to reach any boundaries, you may not expect to benefit from examining them. But then if you never examine them, you won’t do well when you do things outside going to work, watching TV, and buying things in malls.
I’ve thought about values — my own and values in general — a lot, I suspect more than average. I’ve come to many conclusions about them. The following anecdote presents a case whose meaning and applications I haven’t resolved, but has led, even forced, me to examine my values deeply.
One of my best friends in graduate school, a woman also studying physics, invited me to a family event at her grandparents’ home near Fermilab, where we were both working. I met three generations of her family. They were delightful. They had a great barbeque with homemade everything. I was in a Norman Rockwell painting.
At one point in the house, I was walking through a room and saw a wall of pictures on the far wall of my friend’s grandfather as a soldier in World War II.
For a reason I’ll tell below, I asked my friend how her grandfather happened to display his war pictures so prominently. She answered what I imagine any family member of a soldier would say: he loved his country, he’d prefer conflicts resolved without violence, but if his country called him to defend it, he would, so he did. He was proud to have fought for his country. The men he fought with were some of the closest connections of his life. Of course he was glad to demonstrate this dearly important part of his life.
I’m not a fan of war, but I understand these values. I think many would understand them and many would go further to support them wholeheartedly.
The reason I asked my friend about them was that as I approached to look at the pictures more closely, I was forced to remember my friend’s family came to America from Austria. The pictures were of her grandfather in a Nazi uniform. As far as I know, I had never known anyone who identified as a Nazi and here I was in a Norman Rockwell painting with one.
As best I could tell, he loved the United States today, but had loved Austria growing up. My friend said her grandfather had nothing to do with anything political — he only fought for his country when asked. People do that all the time.
How do you make sense of this? On the one hand, it’s simple — the man responded to a call — at the time not likely knowing his leaders would rank among the worst murderers in history — later moved to a better life and didn’t regret any decisions he made despite how circumstances beyond his control played out.
On the other hand, how out of his control were other things or for that matter his actions? He fought to kill people who are now his neighbors or their families and friends. I have Jewish friends and family. I knew people who escaped the Nazis while their friends and family weren’t able to. People today in many countries are asked to fight for their countries but not to ask if they personally agree with the reasons they are fighting for. Could your country’s military survive if everyone could avoid fighting if they disagreed with that war? I think most people would say no, but don’t we wish everyone called up by the Nazis to fight had refused?
But let’s relate this to you here and now. How do you balance conflicting values? How do you balance patriotism with fallibility of leaders, family with changing times, duty with thinking for yourself, pride in your achievements with others’ disapproval of your values?
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