Defining Your Own Values & Crafting Your Own Meaning for Life

Editor’s Note: This month we’re celebrating the tenets of the Indie Manifesto with a community project we’re calling the Indie Travel Challenge (ITC). Participants will have a chance, every day of the month of November, to reflect on a question or a challenge and share. Sign up now and don’t miss a day! Share your reflections on Twitter using the hashtag: #doyouindie

From the instant we are born, there are voices clamoring for our attention. We’re instantly surrounded by a whole world and find ourselves holding hands with the rest of humanity as the ball rolls forward at breakneck speed. We hit the ground running, and we learn to keep pace as our feet grow beneath us.

We’re born into families who teach us to tie our shoes, wipe our noses, and like broccoli. We’re born into cultures which determine our social behaviors and more. We’re born into nations which determine our freedoms and define the boundaries of our religious, political, verbal, and social liberties.

Enter the media. From the first moment the screen catches our unfocused eyes, the messages are being sent. We’re being marketed from cradle to grave. The powers that be will do their best to determine what we eat, wear, think, read, value, and conform to by any means they can on the airwaves. We grow up positively soaking in a propaganda pool; most of us aren’t even aware of it until it’s almost too late.

“We begin to wonder about everything we’ve been taught. We consider the implications. We awaken, in some small way. We begin the process of defining our own values and crafting our own meaning for life.”

Then one day, we lift our heads and take a look around. We ask some fundamental questions. We begin to wonder about everything we’ve been taught. We consider the implications. We awaken, in some small way. We begin the process of defining our own values and crafting our own meaning for life.

For some people, it takes getting outside of one’s home environment, town, country, and culture before the blinders can be removed. A truer self is revealed, and one’s values, and meaning in a life, begin to become conscious choices on an individual basis rather than the result of cultural norms or marketed messages.

What are values?

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The things that matter to you. The underlying philosophy that drives your choices. They control how you spend your time and your money. They control what you’ll get fired up about, what you’ll fight for, and what you’ll let pass unnoticed.

It’s impossible to travel for long and not have your values challenged. Dining with friends in their dirt floored home, seated on chairs lifted down from the ceiling for the special occasion will get a first worlder’s attention. Meeting a mama who’s chosen to go without food so that her kids can have shoes, which are required to attend school, causes a person to reevaluate the benefit of, even a very flawed, public education system. A first person experience with “new colonialism” in a country where most families eat little more than rice and noodles causes a person to ask some fundamental questions about the needs vs. wants equation.

Here’s an example from current events:

Many of us value a frugal lifestyle. Saving a buck is a point of pride. “I got this t-shirt for $3 on sale at Walmart!”

We congratulate the new owner on his shopping savvy and the cost of the item. And then, we see the pictures coming out of the tragic collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh, and we have to ask ourselves, what was the true cost of that t-shirt?

Our values are challenged and begin to change. Instead of “What can I get that t-shirt for?” We begin to ask, “What am I willing to pay for fair wages and healthy working conditions?”

“Travel is continually challenging and redefining my values, and once our eyes are opened, once our realities include the realities of the rest of humanity, we cannot look away. We just can’t.”

I no longer buy cheap coffee, cheap olive oil, or cheap clothing because traveling has irrevocably connected people, with eyes, hearts, and families full of little children, to those products, and I can extend that to other industries as well. I’m not on a crusade to tell “you” that you’re wrong for operating within the set of realities “you” have. But travel is continually challenging and redefining my values, and once my our eyes are opened, once our realities include the realities of the rest of humanity, we cannot look away. We just can’t.

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What is the meaning of life?

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It’s a very funny Monty Python movie! Everyone knows that, but let’s dig a little deeper.

What’s the reason for our existence?

There are two ways to look at this. The most common is in the esoteric and philosophical sense, in which we try to figure out the big picture. We want answers to the big questions. We wonder if there is any reason or rhyme to life. We seek to make patterns out of the chaos. We work to find the threads that tie the mess together.

There’s value to pondering those things. Some people claim to find an answer; for me, the jury is still out. The older I get, the longer I live, the more I travel, the more I experience the good, the bad and the ugly, the less sure I am of anything, and the more I think that, really, we’re all asking the wrong question.

Whether or not there is any ultimate meaning, there’s another way to examine the question. It took me a while to put the pieces together, as it often does. I have to ruminate quite a while on anything that matters, but the pieces of the puzzle were gift wrapped for me a couple of years ago by my Uncle Dick, in the context of parenting.

The meaning of life can be defined and narrowed to a point of purpose by asking yourself three simple questions:

  • Where am I?
  • What’s going on here?
  • What’s the next appropriate course of action?

Think about that for a second. If we learn to be conscious of asking those questions and applying them in the moment, the meaning of life becomes crystal clear: To keep moving forward in a productive manner, for ourselves and for others.

Where am I?

Paying attention to my surroundings and my place in them, whether that’s at the office or hiking the Himalayas.

What’s going on here?

Focusing on living in the moment, being with the people who are here now, assessing the needs in front of me, being intentional about the time and space I’m in.

What’s the next appropriate course of action?

How can I contribute, encourage, heal, bring joy to, alleviate suffering of, build upon, or partner with the people and the circumstances I’m presented with?

Travel is often the catalyst for taking a step back from “everything we’ve ever known” and redefining our values and seeking a deeper meaning for life, but really, it’s not about external travel. It’s about the inner journey. It all boils down to asking those questions and considering the bigger picture. It’s about the fact that Bangladeshi workers stand silent in the aisles of your favorite clothing store, and Tunisian mothers quietly hand you your olive oil. You don’t have to travel to see them, but if you’ve traveled, you can’t not see them.

How has travel affected your value system and how you see your place in the world? Have you discovered the ultimate meaning of life? Or perhaps just the meaning for today? Tweet me: @edventuremama I’m still learning!

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