The monkey’s paw as values clarification exercise

Say what you mean.  Mean what you say.

I am often understood to be saying something, which I would not say on purpose because it is hurtful or in error.  I hate to be misunderstood.  It is one of the things in life which really brings me pain.  I have said things I thought were innocent, which ended in the wounding and offending of someone I care about, and that is something I try to never do purposely.  To further poison the parting glass, which is the misfortune of unintentionally injuring the pride of my loved one, I add my own guilt, embarrassment, and pain at being misunderstood to the noxious cocktail and it becomes all the more potent and inebriating.  Like a drunkard I stumble about looking for an exit, slurring my hasty apologies.  I apologize a lot.  It pricks me very deeply to hurt other people’s feelings with my thoughtless words.  It hasn’t always.  Now that I am a bit older, it is important for me to take my time to choose words carefully, especially when I risk hurting a loved one or spoiling a special moment.  To avoid doing so, (and when I am not in my flesh) first, give myself half a moment to comport my emotions with reality.  Next, I check my words for sharp barbs and bludgeoning wallop.  Then I take a deep breath and speak gently.  Needless to say, I am diligent to go as far out of my as needs be, in order to use words to bless and imbue virtue.

I think it is really important to say what you mean.  I try very hard to use words well, so that my exact meaning is transmitted, with as little room for misunderstanding as possible.  This means choosing the right words!  Mark Twain once said that,

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

But, before you can choose the right words, you must really know what you mean. It is almost impossible to say the right thing, when you aren’t sure what you really believe.

Sometimes we imagine that we know what we are trying to say, when really we don’t.  I have been flustered, and felt kind of incompetent, when I have tried to explain certain things.  For instance, I have recently had to have a talk with my wife about our investment strategies.  I found that I wasn’t able to explain certain subtleties.  This probably means that I don’t understand them very well myself.  I was feeling flummoxed, hot under the collar, and irritable.  How can I convey to her a sense of ease and confidence in our investments, when I don’t even hold a tight grasp on all of the complexities?  This reminds me of one of the rules of philosophy and science; you can’t give others what you yourself do not possess.

In other words, if a hat holds 3 gallons of tea, you can’t get 4 out of it.

So, you must first hold a comprehensive knowledge of the thing, before you will ever be able to give that value to anyone else.  I often find that if I look closely, I don’t really know why I want something.  I find in myself a desire, which I can neither account for its root or heritage.  It is neither moral, physical necessity, nor utilitarian.  I’ve posed this line of thinking to others, sometimes in the form of asking for a definition of cool.  We don’t even know what cool is, but we want to be it; especially as young people, among our peers.  To be thought highly off, seems to be universal human desire.  But, I do not see how it helps you to do arithmetic, earn a living, garden or live a holy life.  I’m a grown man, and I wish I could say that I do not care one iota about looking cool.  Whose approval am I soliciting anyway?  Is it God’s or men?  What could I possible do with my “coolness” once I got it? Is coolness currency?

There is a popular folk tale in which a man and wife use a magical talisman in the form of a monkey’s mummified paw to wish for their dead son’s return.  Of course, they did not choose their words with care, so the shuffling, decaying thing which returns from the grave is a misery and terror to them.  The whole thing ends in torment and sorrow.   They had to experience the fear of the dead thing, which had once been their beloved boy, in order to appreciate that some things are worse than death.  This was a values clarification exercise.  It proved that they would only be able to keep their son, so long as he remained an honored dead, rather than a living thing of reprehensible rot and putrescence, which was in no way their beloved boy.  It is a paradox for us as well; that the only way we shall be able to keep our lives is if we lose them.  But, mark those words well, for they come from the Master and Keeper of Life.  We conclude (along with every other moral tale of persons having their yearnings at long last fulfilled, only to find that they thing they had wanted could not ultimately satisfy their souls) that, indeed, one must be careful what one wishes for.  Is it clichéd?  Certain!  Is it the base truth of all desires?  Most certainly!

Every person must do a values clarification exercise to discover why it is you want what you want.  Without knowing why you have these desires, you will forever chase the latest fads, fashions, and affirmations of others.  Like a dog chasing its tale, you’ll never catch what you’re really after, because you’ve never taken the time to really figure out what’s worth having.  Everyone I’ve ever met has wanted something, but few have ever been able to explain why.  They simply feel it.  They know it in their core.  Actually, I am satisfied with that response about certain things.  But, it simply won’t do for many of the things we say we want.  Consider the following experiment.

Ask a student why he wants to do well in school, and he will almost without fail answer you, “to get into college”.  Ask the young man why he wants to go to college and 9 times out of 10 he will say, “To get a good job”.  (This is the answer he has always been given by his peers, and usually the only reason he had ever been told by his parents to pursue higher education.)  Ask him why he’d like to have a good job, and, invariably he will look at you incredulously and say, “Duh, to make lots of money.”  (I do not have space here to explore that he takes it for granted that the “good job” is the one which makes “lots of money”.   Then ask him why he would like to “make lots of money”.  At this point he will probably be flustered, and unable to cogently discuss his desire for lots of money, because he has taken it for granted that making lots of money is an end unto itself.  Possibly, if he is a decent sort or planning for a family, the young man will reply, “to take good care of my wife and kids.”  If you were to push further, and ask him why he should want to “take good care of his wife and kids”, he might respond, “I don’t know, that’s just what you’re supposed to do.”  He simply feels it, without being able to explain it.  I said before that gut feeling can suffice as explanation for some desires, but I do not agree that the filial responsibility to take good care of one’s family is one of these.  Although, I do feel in my gut the responsibility to take good care of my family, I do not find it to be an end unto itself.   When we mentally allow means unto an end to substitute as ends unto themselves, we have departed from the Truth.

The Christian’s response to any one of these questions, and indeed should be the response to the very first question (and every other one along the way) is to glorify God.  I want to do well in school to glorify God.  I want to go to college so I can glorify God.  I’d like to get a job to glorify God, and my desire is to glorify God with the money I earn there.  I want to raise a family which will glorify God into the ensuing generations.  Clarifying your values should begin with glorify god… ask the question how does this praise the lord, advance his name, bring Him what he’s due?

Clarifying values gets to the heart of desire? It answers the question, “Is this vain ambition, foolish conceit, frivolous acquisitiveness, or something ontologically solid?” I am constantly asking small children, “Why do you want that?” You can’t even prove it would be good for you, let alone worth the money. But, children don’t really care about those properties. They care about what their primal brains tell them to care about. Disregarding logic. Casting away all dignity. Shamelessly squawking their felt needs. The child has no need, nor indeed no ability, for explanations.


Fill in the blank on the following sentence. This year for Christmas, I would like (blank). Now, let me ask you, does (blank) provide you with more silence? Does it bequeath more solitude? Does it promise simplicity (you know, the kind one experiences while sitting beside the lake or stream, and gazing at the gently passing clouds). If it doesn’t do those three, or at least 1 of the 3, then you want the wrong thing. If it doesn’t give you prolonged periods of silence, solitude and/or simplicity, please stop desiring it.