The values of mothers

We would all be psychopaths without our mothers.  We would be insensitive individuals driven by raw desire, completely oblivious of the needs and pain of others, and requiring constant social restraint.

We first begin to think beyond self-interest from our mothers’ example of selflessness.  We learn kindness, generosity, and sacrifice from seeing what these women routinely give up so their offspring may live and grow.  The foundation of what comes naturally to us as human beings, our sense of self, is first formed in the breast of our mothers.

But even mothers are shaped by the vagaries of time.  Like all human beings, they reflect the imperatives of the particular circumstances in which they live.  They are not perfect.  They adjust to the concrete realities and exigencies of their time and place, often developing values or habits of living that today may seem odd and unnecessary.

Until the week she died my mother was concerned that there might not be enough food in her home to feed all her children and grandchildren who came to visit her.  Her first question whenever I came to see her was whether I had already eaten.  She would wrap cooked food in old newspaper and set aside cuts of expensive meat or baskets of fruits given to her, and keep these in her refrigerator for an indefinite period.  She kept a mental list of everything she had on reserve in her kitchen and would offer this blessing to members of her family.

The result of this, of course, is an accumulation of stale or rotting food that should have been eaten and shared with everyone while it was still fresh and edible.  The worst thing that my mother could imagine was for anyone to throw food away.  It was farthest from her mind that not consuming the food while it was still good, and storing it indefinitely rather than giving it away to people who needed it though they were not part of her narrow circle of loved ones, was itself an offensive waste.

My brothers and sisters often wondered why a good and saintly person like our mother sometimes seemed unable to extend to nonrelatives the same unconditional generosity she showered on her children and grandchildren.  I used to say, she was a product of her time, and in this she was not alone.  She came from a generation gripped by the horrific scarcity of war, for whom the family naturally always came first.

Like many of her contemporaries, my mother developed tenacious habits that lived beyond the demands of war-time survival.  She never ate with us when we were children.  She would see to it that everyone had enough to eat.  She would eat what was left over and only after everyone else had finished.  We were already all married before she dropped this habit and finally joined us at her own dining table. These values may seem contradictory, but they are not.  They are drawn from the same well of kindness that could sustain communities larger than the family if we developed the habit of thinking of people different from us as members of our significant others.

I tell this story about my mother in order to differentiate three concepts that we often confuse with one another, namely values, morality, and law.  The things that come naturally to us as a matter of habit and custom are our values.  They are sentiments and habits of living formed by specific circumstances that over the years have become so intimately woven into our own sense of self that we no longer think of them as obligations.

On the other hand, I use the term morality to refer to those obligations that we adopt as a function of our conscious need to adjust to the demands of other human beings, but which have not attained the same level of “naturalness” as values.  And finally, I use the term law to refer to those explicit rules that we subscribe to as a function of our formal membership in a community.

The distinction is not one of essence but of degree of complexity. These are all modes of adjustments to the imperatives of living with others.  The most basic of them are our values, whereas morality and law arise, in the words of the philosopher Richard Rorty, “when routine is no longer good enough, or when habit and custom no longer suffice.”  Examples would be when “the individual’s needs begin to clash with those of her family, or her family’s with those of the neighbors’, or when economic strain begins to split her community into warring classes, or when that community must come to terms with an alien community.”

As the environment in which we must participate becomes more complex, the values we learned from our ancestors may prove insufficient or irrelevant to our needs.  We adopt new moral precepts and laws in order to be able to live with a variety of people from different value systems.  These new moralities and laws often clash with our pre-existing values, giving rise to many problems.

The tension is sometimes represented as a conflict between mindsets (values) and institutions (law), or between sensibilities and structures. Should we be altering mindsets or changing institutions? My own view is that this dualism is not useful, and that it is better to think of living, including nation-building, as a series of practical adjustments to an increasingly complex environment, rather than as a unified moral quest for some universal and eternal ideal.

Our values will necessarily change as circumstances change.  And inappropriate institutions will always fail. More than measuring how far we are from a perfect model or lamenting how far we have strayed from an idealized past, what is important is imagining an attainable future we want for ourselves, and exploring different paths in order to get there.


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