RAMBLINGS: Value and Meaning (Human and otherwise) Part I

This is where I take a very simple thought and expand it into its philosophical roots, loosing most readers in the process. Now that’s not my intention, to lose people, or not to be clear. Sometimes we don’t resolve arguments because we abandon them too early without thinking them to their conclusion. I don’t mind saying provocative things or raising ideas out-side the normal box of thought to do so.

I am “Rambling” again as a combination of pent-up thoughts from being too sick to think or write for several weeks and now, not only feeling much better, but my mind is also being fed by high dose steroids, which makes it race. I will break this up into two or three parts as I’m sure that there will be those who are not interested in my entire thought, may get lost and want to bail at the midpoint. But it covers one of the vital, if not the most vital consideration that we have in life, and that is our value (purpose, meaning are other words that could be used here).

It took me almost ten years to write my book Butterflies in the Belfry. It is where I tried to understand what had gone so wrong in my early “Bible-belt” upbringing. The original manuscript was almost double the size of the final book. The lawyers at my publisher were the driving force for much of my deletions and rewrites. They didn’t want anything in the manuscript that would be exposure for libel. At the last minute I had to do several quick rewrites and even chapter deletions. I was afraid that the final manuscript was left with incomplete thoughts as it was a complicated story.

Before I got into the heart of that book, I wanted to boil down human behavior down to its most basic components. This was important to me because I wanted to be able to honestly appraise my own behavior, including my mistakes, as well as those around me. It took several weeks of meditation, before I came up with a model that made sense, at least to me. I wanted to share some of those thoughts here.

The reason I am having to rehash these thoughts, now, is because of my cancer. This connection will become clearer as I continue, and I will come back to connect the dots now and then. This will look messy at first, as trying to do a braid with several different types of fibers, wool, wire and leather. But in the in, I hope the braid makes some sense.


The person, meaning ourselves, is built like the layers of an onion. On the outer most shell, is the “us” that we want projected to society around us. Imagine you were inside a giant, white, Chinese floating lantern and you are projecting a well-edited digital movie on the inside of this globe. This movie, or narrative is what you want people on the outside to see but likely does not reflect who you really are. But the true “us” is buried beneath, not only one but several layers of the onion.

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Charles Dickens captures this view of personal estrangement, one from another, very well in the third chapter of his Tales of Two Cities:

  1. The Night Shadows

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

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I am convinced that we all do this, making ourselves cloaked from all others. It is the concept of putting the best foot forward. We are trying to create a likeable character, sometimes from scratch. Some of us are good at this, some are not. To do this, we must know the societal rules of what to say and what not to say. We know the societal rules of how we dress, how we walk, and how we look. Besides the cultural framework at large, we fall into several smaller subcultures. These include things like the area of the country we live in, our religious/philosophical subculture and even down to the specific subculture of our extended families.

Some people are offended by my suggestion that they are faking it, at least to a degree. Religious folks don’t take easy to such a suggestion, because they perceive themselves as honest. I’ve found the Millennials don’t care for being consider phonies, after all, it was one of their causes to fight against the pretentiousness of their parents’ generation. They have done better, and I think they are more authentic at least from our generations Catcher in the Rye world of Holden’s Caulfield’s phonies.

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Sigmund Freud was ahead of his time when he made these observations in the early part of the twentieth century. He labeled the onion in just a few layers. The ego was the basic “us” at the center of the onion. The Id was that part of us that was most socially undesirable (usually sexual oriented or about empowering over others), and the Super Ego was the part of us that we wanted projected to the outside world. So, for example, if someone got involved with a great humanitarian work, it could be that 100% of their motivation was to project to society that they are the altruistic, superhero. It could be a very selfish enterprise with very little honest concern about the people they supposed to be helping. I think Freud went too far by saying that we are always controlled by this very selfish Id, while I think some of us are motivated by a deep, personal compassion for the cause… at least some of the time. Freud believed the Super Ego projection to society was always about trying to increase our value… or to get laid by a beautiful co-worker who would see our altruistic ventures as sexy.

I’ve witnessed this situation where a middle-aged, married man goes on this great humanitarian adventure and quickly it becomes apparent to all of us that his entire motivation is to sleep with younger volunteers, while calling his wife on the sat phone every night to inform her how much he misses her. But I’ve observed that the full intention of this type of volunteer was to put himself in the position of a sexual predator which the unique situation allowed and had nothing to do with the people he was coming to help. More often it is the praise that they will get from the home crowd. But I digress.

But this brings me back to this topic of value. During my weeks of meditation about human behavior, in 2014, I did reach the conclusion that all of us seek value as the fundamental motivating factor to our behavior and we will fight tooth and nail to preserve that wholesome image.

I’ve done humanitarian work overseas too and I know, if I peel back the layers of the onion, that a part—maybe a big part—of my motivation was seeking value as that superhero (I was never a predator, may God forbid). I do have a great compassion about for the suffering, but it is a mixed motive.

We also seek value in many other ways. We seek value is by exercising, trying to look buff. In our society, more value is placed on the young (20s) than older groups and those who are buff than those who carry some weight. But then, there are many other measurements of value. During other periods of history, there was more status in looking pale (like you never had to go out into the sun), heavy (meaning you had the means to be well-fed), and had no muscles (proving that you had others doing all the heavy lifting for you).

Money is a huge assessment for personal value, especially as you lose your youth. Society believes that the more money we have, the more value we have as a person as well as having important jobs, being over-all good looking and there are many more. In Christian circles, there is a tremendous effort to project “spirituality” to that outer-most layer, you know, being a good person. Having spent much of my early life in such circles, I know how hard we worked to make ourselves look valuable by looking spiritual. We knew what to say, how to act, how to dress, how to volunteer. The most important characteristic was knowing all the answers and with certainty. What we called “Bible study” was often current Evangelical cliché recycling.

We also seek value by being a good parent (however we define that), by being a good person, a faithful son or daughter. We sought perfection … on the surface. Then, again, in some circles being “bad ass” is what seems to give you value.

My daughter says that her generation is more honest about these things. That, it would not seem overly cruel or insensitive to say to someone that you really don’t want to hang out with them because you just don’t like hanging out with them. In my generation, such a statement would be scandalous at best. Instead, we would always lie to give excuses how busy we are.

Connecting a Couple of Dots

I will pause to connect this rambling with my present narrative. While I should know better, the challenges to my self-value have been countless during this experience of cancer over the past seven months. Suddenly, you lose your career, your money, your physique, your future, your hair, your ability to contribute to society, and your ability to feel well or at least like a real man and you are certainly no longer the life of the party. I will come back to this dot. But it can leave you feeling like you have absolutely nothing to bring to the table anymore. I think that is a common feeling from my cancer-suffering associates, at least the ones I’ve met here at the cancer center, where they are in the middle of the fight. But, before you are tempted to comment to encourage me (which you are so kind to do, and I didn’t mean to bait for such a response), this is not just about me but the foundational principles that I want to explore. Hold that thought!


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2 responses to “RAMBLINGS: Value and Meaning (Human and otherwise) Part I”

  1. Nothing to bring to the table anymore ……….. also a very frequent thought for me with daily migraines. I don’t mean to suggest that what I’m suffering is in any way comparable to the horrific ordeal you’ve been going through, Mike. But that similar conviction of worthlessness dogs my heals on a daily basis. I worry it like a dog with a bone, from countless angles. One I come back to contemplate fairly often comes from my earlier career as an occupational therapist. I worked with extremely disabled children and had very close personal relationships with some very memorable kids whom I came to love. They taught me many lessons that I carry with me still after many years and a whole other career, retirement and my own current level of pain and “disability” (whatever that word means.)


  2. It is great knowing you are feeling better to ramble again. I missed all your deep deep thoughts. So far, on this rambling I am following you. It is putting your bare soul out there for all to see, hairless, broke, and searching for you. You are strong, in more ways than one. Glad you’re back!


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