This article originally appeared on moreloveletters.com 14 December 2021.
I’m lucky enough that I’ve never had much problem dancing to the beat of my own drum. Lucky because I believe it’s a good skill to have — to be fine on my own, to have other people look at me oddly, or to be questioned, and feel confident with my answer — when endeavoring to live a life of value.
To me, value isn’t something I can get with a coupon. I find value in something, usually an experience, that enriches my life. When people say “find your truth,” I think what they really mean is find what you value. It allows us to be honest with ourselves while still respecting others. Truth is an indisputable fact; values are malleable and complex because they can exist in so many permutations. Honoring our values feels true to ourselves.
We receive so many messages, from so many outlets — from friends and family to culture, society, and the media, not to mention advertisements and guerrilla marketing campaigns — that it can be hard to hear our own inner voices above the noise. There are so many distractions — money, fear, prestige, technology, uncertainty, entertainment, and the opinions of others — that sometimes we don’t even realize if we are living a meaningful life or not. So it is up to us to stop and think about the things and practices we want to add or remove from our lives to create a more personal life, to live the life of our dreams.
Just as people disagree on what physical things are important to them, what it means to live a meaningful life is different for all of us as well. To find value, we must look closely at our choices. Do we really think about the things we surround ourselves with every day? The small, quiet things, the things screaming for our attention, the things we shower upon others? Sometimes we don’t think about our values at all. We simply follow the status quo. Traditions have endured because many people find value in them (they are great at fostering a sense of place amidst the never-ending passage of time), but even traditions evolve as the people who practice them grow physically, mentally, and emotionally. After all, at some time someone somewhere started something new that is now considered a tradition.
My husband and I had an untraditional wedding. We had to stick to a pretty tight budget while still wanting to invite a lot of people, which meant we really had to think about what we valued, what was important to us on this special day. I knew I didn’t care for some of the more archaic aspects of weddings so we jettisoned them completely. I love my father immensely, but he did not walk me down the aisle to “give me away” — I walked together with my husband, entering our marriage as equals. We chose to get married outside because we both value nature and the outdoors. My mother’s friend officiated the wedding because she had been a big part of my spiritual upbringing, and my husband also knew and loved her. We played music from an iPod so we could play every single one of our guests’ RSVP song requests. We spent most of our money on food because we love delicious food and dancing is free. We didn’t even have a professional photographer because we wanted to spend our time partying, not posing.
My way of finding value will certainly not be for everyone. Many people give advice enthusiastically because they are so ecstatic to share what worked for them. But imagine that feeling for yourself, a feeling of accomplishment greater than expected because you figured it out for yourself. We need not follow blindly, but instead participate wholeheartedly in the things in which we choose to invest our time, money, and attention while safeguarding those three precious resources from all that distracts us. Value boils down to our beliefs, what’s important. What do we find important? And do the things and practices present in our daily lives reflect that?
It can be hard to go against the grain or swim against the current, but we don’t exist to make wood comfortable or to please the stream. We also don’t need to skip out on society or buck tradition just for rebellion’s sake. Let’s start by questioning things. Every single thing. Some questions will be easier to answer than others, but a curious mind is forever growing. To grow is to be alive.
Perhaps Mary Oliver said it best at the end of her poem “The Summer Day”:
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life?"
It continues to get easier the longer you dance to your own drum; you start enjoying yourself so much you don’t care what anybody else thinks of your moves. So try something new. Find what you value and live with it now. I bet you won’t find it in a store.