Values, beliefs, and human action form the core of what I want my work to be about with the clients I see. This is true because these notions also form the core of what I hope my life to be about. When I think about my counseling work with Contemplations, it’s not guided so much by some specific counseling theory, with the exception of existential thought. Rather my thoughts are guided by my being grounded in the ideas of libertarianism and personal liberty. These ideas have given rise to the way I now think about my own life and my work with clients, particularly those clients who are seeking what they want their lives to be about. Let me quickly add, when I say libertarian, I’m not talking about politics, but rather anti-politics. I’ve come to believe that politics represent no viable answers to anything at all. I’m interested in what journeys people want to take with their lives. How do they want their personal journeys to play out in their ways of living? These ideas over the last several decades have played an important part in the way I approach living, probably in the last thirty-five years or so. They are questions and ideas that led me to stop on the road I was on at one time, and then take a completely different path that led to where I am now. That being the case, they are also thoughts and ideas that floated in and out of my awareness, taking some time for me to formulate them as I have at this point. I will not claim to have fully formulated them, because that is still a work in progress and will be until I take my last breath. What I want to write about in this article are a set of ideas I have formulated for myself that no doubt will shape my work with clients because they shape what I value and the manner in which I hope to live.
The Axiom of Human Action
Human beings act. I have stolen this idea as formulated from the great Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). The thought is stated as a basic axiom. We act in life so as to make of our lives what we hope them to be. People move toward those things in their lives that they want and desire. That is, they move toward goals that they value. Thought and action go hand-in-hand. A fulfilled life consists of acting in alignment with one’s thoughts, beliefs, and values. There’s no claim here that these things don’t change over time with human beings. They definitely have changed with me over the course of my life. But a change in values and beliefs requires exploration and reevaluation of one’s values, which will then still guide one in his actions. In order to move toward one’s goals, one must know how to get there. In other words one must have a plan or a recipe as to how one sees life unfolding. Plans and recipes are never perfect. Most likely all of us have had to clarify, modify, enhance, and rework our plans toward what we perceive as a better way to live. Hence one claims that he’s perfecting his plans to achieve his goals. Part of the human condition in moving toward our goals involves our facing difficulties, shortcomings, and outright failures. Such experiences feed the need to rework our plans. They also immerse us in the human condition.
The Factor of Time
Another marker of the human condition is that we are immersed in time. An important realization that occurs for us as we seek to follow our plans toward our goals is that the future toward which we head is uncertain. Our actions take place in time, from now to the future, creating a past as we move on. The future is always uncertain. And time is finite. We only have so much time to create the life we want for ourselves. Plans can be made. They can be constructed with as much rationality, input, and information as we can garner. But we never have the sufficient knowledge, and for sure lack the omniscience, so as to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our plans will succeed, or even work out in any particular way we desire. Time in one sense is rather like a pressure cooker turning the heat upon us to move and not waste any of the time we possess. Setbacks when our plans do not fully work out rob us of precious time. The constant battle is not to break under the pressure. Hence, if we want to make something of our lives, we are required to develop virtues that keep us on track. For the pressure never seems to dissipate.
Courage. Courage is called for along the way in our journey toward the life we want when setbacks, struggles, and failures emerge as major barriers on our path toward the life we desire for ourselves. To alter or change a plan requires retooling and the courage to let go of that which did not work. This doesn’t mean our values necessarily change, but it does mean our understanding of how we want to get to where we desire does change. Then there are those times that perhaps we question a value we have held to for some time. To discard and change a value requires an act of courage as well. Such changes in values might also require that our goals likewise change. We have been moving on a path. Now the destination is altered. This requires that we face the fear of more uncertainty.
Rationality. We must realize what our beliefs and values are before we can act on them. There are personal truths that we must explore, and of which we must become aware before we start our journey. Not that these things are done in some linear way where we must have all our ducks lined up before we move in life. If that were the case, we might not ever move. But we have to have some understanding of how our values and beliefs are driving us through life. Otherwise we’re floating in the wind, or we’re tossed about on the waves of a sea here and there of conflicting notions. Reason helps us understand what our goals and desires are that emerge from our beliefs and values. Do they mesh? Might our goals have to be changed so as better to align with our values? Might our goals inform us that we might not really value what we claim to value? Rationality allows us to make our plans and gain a picture of how we will carry those plans out toward the life we want. Though a valuable virtue, rationality cannot tell us everything. We are cast in finitude and insufficient knowledge. The future is uncertain. In uncertain times we fall back on our beliefs and values and the courage it takes to either stay with them or alter them.
Openness. Being open to what life brings and the flexibility that such openness requires is an important virtue that can help us not break under the pressure of time and life’s vicissitudes. The art and practice of mindfulness can help us be open to life. For some people it’s prayer and meditation. Openness seems and feels paradoxical to facing the pressure of time. What the pressure of time shouldn’t do is lead us to live a harried life. There’s a time to step back, stop, and reflect. This is contemplation. As we move toward our various goals, and the ultimate goal of a fulfilled life, we may come to realize that we lack certain skills that we require to get us where we want to be. Being open and flexible to that experience brings important lessons. If we need to take time to develop skills, the pressure of time is churned up a notch once again. But if we do not develop necessary skills, the probability of our reaching our goals is next to nil. A sticktoitiveness is required here. This sounds paradoxical to openness. But the two are not necessarily antithetical. They are a polarity in living that we must constantly navigate. As we develop skills and become accomplished, a personal efficacy is imbued in us that we can navigate the dilemmas of life. We come to believe that we can accomplish things. We take our stand and face the multiple goals we have set for ourselves, all contributing to the ultimate goal of what we want our life to be about. Courage, rationality, and openness along with some necessary stubbornness at times are required for us to move to where we want to arrive.
Integrity. How do we want to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves? Hopefully with integrity. Our actions align with our beliefs and values at every turn along the way on our journey. A person hopes to achieve his goals with honesty, perseverance, courage, and character. Human action, however, is never about perfection. We disappoint ourselves. We disappoint and let down others. We flounder at points we wish we hadn’t. We give in at times. We give up at other times. We fall on our face. Human action is also about picking ourselves up. It is about reworking where we messed up, both technically in terms of talent and information, and morally, in terms of acting in ways that went against our values. We all mess up. The courage and integrity to face such failures is what leads to our personal development along the way.
In a sense, all these virtues are interconnected and form a nexus of how we go about life. Alone, neither of these virtues listed here, and there are many more, is enough. They are all required along with many others.
I am no different from my clients. This human action journey is the same for me as it is with any human being. We are all on our personal journeys. Our journey must be ours alone. We must define it, declare it, and live it out for ourselves. To call on others to live it out for us is an act of cowardice, a point of dishonesty, and a lack of integrity. This is how I hope to live, knowing that I will not live up to it perfectly. I hope I can work with clients to help them make their journeys as smooth as possible, with the caveat that no journey is totally flawless. In fact, all journeys are far from any sense of a smooth ride. Both clients and I are on a journey together. As different and unique as those journeys are, they are the same in many ways. We dream, hope, plan, and act on those things we deeply believe. We move toward the kind of lives we want for ourselves.
Like I said, much of this thought I’ve formulated now does not come from any particular counseling theory, though several such theories, no doubt, cover these ideas. ACT comes to mind, as well as others. Presently in my reading, I’ve formulated these ideas via the study of libertarian thinkers, objectivist thinkers, and Christian writers and thinkers. Would anyone else hope to integrate such varied paths of ideas? I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s starting to make sense for me. And like anyone else, I must put these ideas together with honesty and integrity, realizing the many areas where I’ve failed miserable along the way, both technically and morally.
Here’s to your journey being what you hope it to be.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/July 14th, 2017