I’d be willing to wager that if there’s one thing that connects almost every single person on planet earth it’s this: We’re all on our own path, a journey, to somewhere, to nowhere, to anywhere. Crystal clear or weathered and worn down, for better or for worse, we’re on it.
I’m going to tell you a short story about a man who was given a gift, the gift of clarity, of objectivity, a gift he received in the most unlikely circumstances and a gift that pained him to such a mammoth extent that it not only changed the course of his life, but that of thousands of others, long after his death in 1896.
By the time the Swedish chemist and engineer, Alfred B. Nobel (1833-1896), had reached his mid-fifties he, furthering the family business, had amassed a significant personal fortune in the development and manufacture of armaments and explosives.
The Nobel family factory is cited as a major producer of armaments during the Crimean War (1853-1856), and Alfred himself filed successful patents for the production of gunpowder and was famed for being the inventor of dynamite (1867), albeit for use in a construction/ demolition capacity — quite the resume for the self-proclaimed pacifist.
Then, on a day in 1888 in cruel schadenfreude-ic fashion, Alfred Nobel was offered a painfully stark insight into what his life had become, insight offered by the death of his older brother, Ludvig. Several newspapers had mistakenly written obituaries of Alfred’s life, not Ludvig’s. These obituaries echoed platitudes of death, destruction and loss, with one French newspaper lamenting “Le marchand de la mort est mort,” meaning “The merchant of death is dead.”
We can but ponder the impact of such a revelation, to read of one’s own legacy with such disdain. What would we do?
Well, all we really know is what Alfred Nobel did next. Using his new found perspective, he pursued absolution with full rigor. Nobel spent the next 8 years, prior to his actual death, setting up a system to recognize, reward and further the good in the world: positive innovations and eminence in physics, chemistry and medicine, with the later additions of literature, peace, and economics. This collectively became known as the Nobel Prizes.
When I hear this story, it reminds me of something my program has done as part of an Interventions class in our second semester, an exercise focused on identifying our own personal values, those that matter most to us and rating ourselves on personal performance against those values.
If you value hard-work most highly in life, how hard are you working right now?
If honesty is important to you, how truthful are you with your family and friends on a daily basis?
At the time it struck me how viscerally disrupting these significant disconnects between personal values and personal actions could be, to feel that we’re not living by our own standards. With the help of Mr. Nobel, I find that that point is given a face, the turmoil and the result of a life lived in spite of personal values rather than in partnership with them, the pain of lost time and the anguish of misplaced direction.
On the flip side, consider the moments in time where we feel it. We feel the connection, the draw, the pull on our hand as we’re guided, without doubt, towards our mission, our purpose, our calling — oh, what a feeling!
Well it turns out that’s not just some whimsical, fanciful notion. That there’s a reason for our private elation, and that reason is, in part, due to our personal values. Research has been done to suggest that the root of our rich pursuit of happiness lies in both the identification and expression of our values. “We now know that happiness is routinely tied up with the disclosure and realization of values.” (Robbins, 2015).
The social connection we feel with those around us is in large part determined by the values we share with others, culminating in the warm and fuzzy feeling of being understood by those closest to us. Robbins (2015) speaks of such a connection in recounting the work of social psychologist and philosopher Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), stating that “We experience effervescent happiness when we feel we are joined together with others in sharing the same representations and evaluations of a situation and are therefore acting in concert in relation to it.”
So, where to begin to make these connections? Something I’ve come to appreciate throughout the first year of this program is the importance and power of awareness, both in the sense of being present to the moment and also understanding personal motivation (i.e. what drives us as individuals, what gets us leaping out of bed in the morning, an appreciation of our personal values.)
Whether it’s through hard-work, honesty, loyalty, perseverance, or building community, write out your 5 core personal values and remind yourself of them whenever you need clarity, motivation, or direction along your path. That is, unless you’d prefer to wait to read about it in the local newspaper.
– Alex Easby –
Durkheim, Émile. (1912) 1995. The elementary forms of the religious life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press.
Lallanilla, M. (2013). The dark side of the Nobel Prizes. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/40188-dark-history-alfred-nobel-prizes.html
Robbins, J. (2015). On happiness, values, and time: The long and the short of it. Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5(3), 215-233.