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Personal Values: Freedom of Conscience

4 min

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As our discussion of personal values comes to an end, I'd like to about the most important value of all:

Freedom of conscience.

Put another way:

That the outside match the inside.

Joan Didion called this "self respect:"

"People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent."

There's an infinite variety of ways to be in the world.

You could be cruel, or kind.

You could be loud, and brash, or quiet and unassuming.

You could achieve, and strive, and fight, or you could retire to your garden and read.

None of these are necessarily "better" than the others.

There isn't - in my own estimation - anyone lording over us, passing out grades.

No judgement.

No come-uppance.

No settling of scores.

This life is all you get, and thus your choice of values to embody is  important. You are totally and completely free, but that freedom is an action and is expressed only in the choices you make.

When our choices and our values align - when our outside matches our inside - we experience clarity.


The worriless sleep of a clean conscience.

It takes strength to do this. It isn't easy.

Everywhere you turn, there is someone who wants to dictate the contours of your inner life:

Social media accounts that fill you with envy....

News media that fills you with rage...

False prophets that fill you with nonsense.

Holding on to what is dear to us - maintaining our grip on what really matters - takes fortitude. It takes grit. It takes sacrifice, of one kind or another.

What happens when we let go of our personal values? What happens when we change what is outside to match the expectations of others? What happens when we sacrifice congruence for convenience, or safety, or for personal gain?

At best, we experience the pangs of conscience.

We feel conflicted, guilty, ashamed. We know what we've done is wrong, and we don't know how to make it right.

At worst?


Read this testimony from a German police officer who was conscripted into acting out a role in Hitler's final solution:

"I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers."

This is a man so desperate to avoid the pains of the conscience that he has rationalized the murder of children as an act of mercy.

When we allow others to override our values we create space for violence.

We take our place in the mob, freed of moral responsibility, freed of constraint, open to the worst in our natures.

If you won't take responsibility - if you won't allow yourself to feel guilt, or shame - how can we be moral at all?

Living out our values is the struggle of our lifetimes.

It is a task we will fail at, again and again.

But there is nothing more respectable - nothing more decent - than trying.

To live with a clear conscience,

fully aligned between action and intention,

between mission and values,

between outside and inside,

That is the ultimate aim. The definition of a moral life.

As Rockwell quoted on the canvas:

Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.

That is the personal value I hold above all others.

Lord knows, I have fallen short so many times.

Lord knows, I will likely fall short again...

But I will never stop getting back up.

I will never stop trying.

Thank you, as always, for reading.



I unabashedly love Rockwell and love The Four Freedoms, but it's impossible to look at them today without noticing the lack of diversity. Rockwell's imagery remains powerful, and as such there have been many attempts to update his work. I particularly liked the instance below.

Norman Rockwell’s Vision of the Four Freedoms Left Some People Out. These Artists Are Trying to Fill Those Gaps
The images remain some of history’s most iconic visual representations of the American idea

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