Chapter 4. Revising Priorities and Values

Growth Counseling for Mid-Years Couples
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 4. Revising Priorities and Values

Existence will remain meaningless to you it you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning, for yourself. Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you will meet God.... If you wish to believe, love. (Martin Buber, At the Turning (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Young.)

-- Martin Buber

If the mid-years are to become the good, rich years they have the potential of being, a revision of one's values and of the lifestyle they produce may be essential. This revision can be the most important but also the most difficult step one takes in responding creatively to the challenge of the mid-years. Value clarification and revision are essential ingredients in mid-years counseling and marriage enrichment.

Some of us must be stopped in our tracks by a medical or marital crisis before we take stock of our lives and our values. Years ago, while I was a hospital chaplain, I called on a man in his late forties who was slowly recuperating from a major heart attack. Reflecting on what he had gone through since the attack, he said, "For the first time in my life I've been forced to be still long enough to look at what my frantic pace has done to myself and my family." He went on to describe the sweetness of simply being alive and the changes he had made in his attitudes concerning what is really important. In retrospect, I now realize that I could not really understand what he was saying then. Not until I had a confronting hospitalization experience myself, some years later, did I begin to comprehend the agonizing reappraisal he was experiencing. Crises can often help us -- even force us -- to examine our lives and our values

Fortunately, not everyone has to be floored by a major crisis before they take a careful, self-critical look at the effects of their lifestyle. A businesswoman at a mid-years enrichment workshop described her response to her fiftieth birthday: "Suddenly, it hit me -- I, Jean Carey, have a limited number of years in which to do what I want to do with my life! In my work, when you discover you have a limited amount of capital, you rethink your investment plan!" This chapter is an invitation to rethink your life investment plan, and the values which determine it.

One of the assets of the mid-years is this increased awareness of the brevity and preciousness of time. Birthdays come with accelerating rapidity. A recent study of the growth stages of adulthood showed that a quiet urgency is common during the thirty-five to forty-three age group -- "Time, once shrugged off as infinite, was now visibly finite and the view was worrisome."( Gould, p. 76. The majority of respondents under 35 answered "agree" to the statement, "There's still plenty of time to do most of the things I want to do." From ages 34 to 41 an increasing percentage disagreed. After 55 the proportion of "agrees" declined steadily.) Fortunately, this sense of urgency can create the motivation to reexamine one's life-shaping priorities and values. The pressure of this urgency continues until one makes peace with time by choosing to invest it well.

The study just cited revealed that many mid-years people reorient their values spontaneously: "They were more eager [than in the thirties] to have 'human' experiences, such as sharing the joys, sorrows, confusions, and triumphs of everyday life, rather than searching for the glamour, the glitter, the power, or the abstract. Precious moments of contact and deep feelings define the value of being in touch. Death becomes a new presence for this age group."( lbid., p. 74.) The growing awareness of the inevitability of death can enhance the awareness that life is very precious.

Of course, those of us in the mid-years have no corner on value struggles. Countless people in all age groups suffer from value conflicts and "value vacuums" in their inner lives.( See Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Law, An Introduction to Logo therapy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962) Values problems are epidemic in our times. The widespread collapse of traditional certainties and value systems has created both the present value chaos and the opportunity to find life-affirming adult values to guide us. The time-bind and the awareness of mortality makes the value crunch even more painful for many in the mid-years. This pain is increased by the fact that faulty values and choices in the past have closed many options in the present and the future.

Lest this whole matter seem to be accompanied by funereal tones, let me reemphasize that the central reason for reappraising your lifestyle and values is not the fear of having a heart attack or suffering some other disasters. Rather it is to make sure that you are on the road you really want to travel -- the road that will allow you to use the years ahead creatively, productively, and joyfully, whatever life brings. A better future is more likely to occur by choice than by chance.

The Process of Revising Your Investment Plan

There are six steps by which a couple can make a midcourse correction of their priorities and values. I will outline these steps -- which can be used in counseling and enrichment sessions as well as by individual couples -- and then describe some tools for implementing them.

1. Each person identifies and clarifies his or her guiding values and priorities.

2. Each person reevaluates her or his values and ranks them in a better order.

3. As spouses, compare and coordinate your respective values and priorities.

4. Devise and coordinate plans for reallocating your time and energies to move toward your revised and improved objectives. Recontracting is a part of this step and the next.

5. Implement these plans.

6. Reexamine your lifestyles periodically and make whatever further correction of direction is needed to keep you on your chosen course.

The value reorientation exercises which follow are helpful tools for implementing these six steps. The exercises may be used effectively either alone or in a group.

In a column down the left side of' a sheet of paper (perhaps in your growth journal) list the ten most important things in your life. You may want to include things such as your work, family relationships, religion, health, recreation and hobbies, and your "cause."/ Now number these ten in order of their importance to you, making the thing you would most hate to lose number one./ In a column to the right of this list of values and priorities write the approximate amount of time you actually invested in each of these areas during the last two weeks (choose a long- er or shorter period of time if that would be more meaningful.)/ Add to your list other less-valued activities, noting the time they consumed./

Now, check to see to what extent the ways you are actually investing your life (that is, your time) correspond to your list of priorities./ Does your allocation of time show a more honest picture of your real values and priorities than your list? Or do you need to reallocate your time and energy to invest more of yourself in the things that really matter to you? Reflect on these questions./ In another column to the right, put a plus beside the items in which you want to invest more time, and a minus beside those which deserve less./

Share your discoveries with your spouse. At what points are your and your spouse's priorities in conflict? Discuss the implications of your findings. What changes are indicated in your marriage and lifestyle?/

Now, write out plans which will enable you both to give more of yourselves to the things that matter most. This process usually requires negotiation and creative compromises in those areas in which your priorities conflict./ Integrate these changes into your revised marriage covenant (chapter 3)./

Take responsibility for implementing your side of the plans and encouraging each other in what may be a struggle to reorient your working values. Keep track, in your growth logs, of your progress toward implementation of a more intentional and value-guided lifestyle.

The process just described can help you take a candid look at how your values are affecting your life and where they are taking you. Your present allocation of time is a rough indicator of your functional values. Awareness of your actual time schedule can help you use more of your time for what you really prize. In this way you can control your schedule rather than having it control you. This exercise can be an instrument for taking back into your own hands the power you have given over to your datebook. It can help you live more intentionally.

It's safe to assume that enriching your marriage is one of your priorities or you wouldn't be reading this book. The marital checkup and covenant revision suggested in the previous chapter are ways of reevaluating and improving that important aspect of your life. If you used those tools, you are already well along in the process of making your life investment plan serve you better.

Here is a goal-oriented approach that complements the above exercise. On the left side of another sheet in your growth log, quickly list all your main goals, the things you want to achieve during the rest of your life./ Now put each goal in a time frame. Put "10 years," "5 years," "1 year," "1 month," "1 week" beside the things on your list which you want to achieve within your specified time periods./ Compare your list of goals with that of your spouse./ Together create a list of joint goals for your marriage./

Now, taking one goal at a time from your list of individual goals, develop and write out workable plans for achieving each goal./ Work together with your spouse on plans for achieving your joint goals./ Keep a record of your progress toward implementation of your goals.

If these exercises seem cumbersome or mechanical to you, I recommend that you devise your own less-structured approaches to revising your life-investment plans. The books by Sidney Simons and Bryan Hall in the Annotated Bibliography describe a variety of value clarification tools which can be useful in mid-life.

Guidelines for Generative Values

The cause of much mid-years zestlessness and marital malaise is the commitment to nongenerative, inadequate values. For a couple to agree on values in a marriage won't help if the values are themselves impoverished or distorted. What is needed is a commitment to more generative values. Generative values are those which foster creativity, growth, and wholeness for others as well as oneself, indeed for all of humankind. Several women of my acquaintance (including the one to whom I am married) are experiencing the mid-years as exciting new chapters in their lives. This became possible for them only when their consciousness was raised and, as a result, they challenged many of the values to which they had committed their earlier years, values which had kept them from discovering their full intelligence and creativity. Many people have found their middle years to be an excellent time for reconsidering and reordering their values and priorities.

Here are some questions derived in part from the twelve strategies in chapter 2 -- which can be used to evaluate the adequacy, the generativity, of one's goals and priorities:

1. Do my (our) values and priorities, and the lifestyle they produce, allow me (us) to maintain robust physical-emotional health in the mid-years?

2. Do my (our) values and lifestyle allow me (us) time to develop my (our) mid-years potential -- intellectually and spiritually? Do I take time to enjoy the satisfactions of the mind and heart? Gradually shifting one's energies from outer achievements to inner fulfillment is an essential value shift in the mid-years. Speaking to Princeton students, the late Adlai E. Stevenson once declared: "What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: the knowledge that he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas . . . but of people, places, actions -- a knowledge not gained . . . by words, but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love -- the human experiences and emotions of this earth; and perhaps, too, a little faith and a little reverence for the things you cannot see."* To relish and build on those fragments of insight and wisdom you have acquired by hard experience -- this is the challenge of the interior life in the mid-years.

3. Do my (our) values and lifestyle allow me (us) time to enjoy the good things of life and to do the creative worthwhile and fulfilling things I (we) could do? If your values cause you to invest too much of yourself in work, duty, and responsibility, you probably need to achieve a better balance by giving creativity and play higher priorities in your life. Mid-years depression may stem from chronic hunger for more satisfaction and enjoyment.

4. Do my (our) present values and lifestyle leave me (us) enough time with the person or persons I (we) care most about? A corporation lawyer died suddenly at sixty-nine from a heart attack. His whole adult life, up to and including the day he died, had been poured into his work. His widow shared her deep regret with the friends who gathered after the funeral: "We always looked forward to having some time just for ourselves. Now it's too late."

In my experience, the most common complaint of mid-years couples is this: "We want more time with each other." In these busy years it's easy to let nearly everything else, including many less important things, come before one's marriage. It behooves us to live our time fully, especially in those precious relationships that help give our existence meaning.

A friend in her mid-twenties lost her husband after an extended fight with cancer. Following his death, she wrote to her relatives and friends: "To all of you I would say (as I'm sure Mark would wish me to): live out your love for one another now. Don't assume the future; don't assume all kinds of healing time for the bruising places in your relationship with others. Don't be afraid to touch and share deeply and openly all the tragic and joyful dimensions of life."( The writer of these words was Sandra Albertson; used by permission) These are wise words for any of us at any age. They are particularly appropriate for those of us in the mid-years.

5. Do my (our) values and lifestyle allow both of us to keep growing as fully as possible? Do we have equal opportunities to develop and use our potentialities? In many marriages there is commitment to roles which reflect an unequal valuing of the two persons' rights to growth and fulfillment. This inequity eventually diminishes the joy and intimacy of the relationship, even though both parties agree on the arrangement.

6. Does my (own) lifestyle reflect the most significant and life-giving values? Abraham Maslow, in his research on self-actualizing people, identified what he called "B-values" [B for Being], which guided and motivated their lives. These intrinsic values, he held, are biologically based, in that with them, people grow and stay well; without them, people get sick psychologically. These B-values are the path to a fulfilled life and a good society. Many of them are found in the major religious traditions. Some of them are emphasized in the timetested wisdom of the Hebrew-Christian heritage. They are undergirded by the nature of the spiritual universe. Because they embody the basic principles of psychological and interpersonal reality, a commitment to these values is essential to a wholeness-tending life or marriage. Maslow lists 15 of these B-values: truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, synergy (transformation of opposites into unities), aliveness, uniqueness, completeness, justice, order, simplicity, richness (intricacy), effortlessness, playfulness, and autonomy.( See Abraham H. Maslow Religions,Values?And peak experiences (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 1964), pp. 91-96.)

7. Do my (our) values and lifestyle allow me (us) time for a significant cause, a challenge beyond my (our) inner circle, that will help others and improve my (our) community? We human beings have a deep need to give as well as to get love, to serve as well as to be served. As psychologist James Bugental has said: "It's as much the nature of human beings to dream the impossible dream as to scurry around for selfish gain."( Lecture at Claremont, Calif., 20 June 1970.)

Does your lifestyle allow you to dream some "impossible dream" for a better tomorrow and invest yourself in helping it become reality?

8. Are my (our) values and lifestyle consistent with sound survival value for the human family? It isn't enough to test one's values by the criterion of what will give myself, my marriage, and my family fulfillment. Such personal and family narcissism is, in the long run, self-defeating for myself and my family, because it denies our basic responsibility to the larger human family of which we all are members. Unless the majority of us in affluent countries change our greedy lifestyles of enormous consumption and waste, the children of the human family will have an impoverished planet within a few decades. Even today, with two-thirds of our brothers and sisters around the planet malnourished, it is imperative that we alter our values and lifestyles to enable everyone on the earth to have an opportunity for a genuinely human existence.

To implement our concern for the survival of a livable planet, we must make our circles of generativity more and more inclusive. As Erik Erikson declares, "It is important for us to support the idea that a person can be generative by helping to create a world which can promise a minimum for every child born."( Richard Evans, Dialogue with Erik Erikson (New York: Harper & Row,) Inclusive generativity is a basic survival value. A viable lifestyle for the future must involve our investing more of our time, skills, and resources in self-transcending, family-transcending, nation-transcending commitment to helping save the biosphere and making a full life as possible for all the earth's children as it is for our own.

A robust ecological or social conscience is more essential today than ever before in the human story. We're all passengers on a tiny spaceship, planet earth. We cannot possibly continue to have a free, fulfilled life unless we learn to befriend the biosphere and to make the opportunity for a good life the birthright of every person everywhere. Erikson points out that the virtue or strength that goes with mid-years generativity is care. We can have a good life in the decades ahead only if we broaden our circles of caring far beyond our marriages and our family, to care for and about the whole earth and its peoples.

To measure our values and stretch our consciences by the challenge of inclusive generativity is to be faithful to the biblical vision of the good life. In that vision our caring and generativity are directed to all the children of one Creator who has made us all of one blood. The guiding vision for Christians is that of a new creation resulting from a new being -- a new state of consciousness, awareness, and caring relationships on the earth. This is our calling and our commitment -- a commitment that is the path to wholeness for ourselves, our families, and the family of humankind.