How to live a principled life.

You may immediately wonder if I can really cover this topic adequately in a single blog post. I assure you I can. You see, living a principled life is not hard to explain; it’s just hard to actually do it.

Next you may ask yourself what qualifications I have to speak about this. A fair question, and one I struggled with myself in preparing this. However, I think it comes down to this: I know what I want to believe is true about myself and I try to be sure my thoughts and behaviors reflect that belief every day. Really, I think that’s enough for credibility. I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to be engaged in my struggle and aware of when I fall short of my own expectations. In fact, I think the times when I’ve not lived up to my principles have been some of the times when I’ve made the most progress.

That being said, how does one live a principled life? As I said, it’s not terribly hard to explain. I think there are just two steps.

  1. Decide the values by which you want to make every decision in your life. I suggest picking only a few that apply to every kind of life decision you make, big or small.
  2. Step two is to conscientiously and with great intent, apply those values to everything you do, every decision you make and every interaction you have with others. Be serious about using these values to define your every thought, word and deed, and recognize when you fall short. Then try really hard not to fall short of your own standards again.

That’s really it. Now let me tell you about how I incorporate this into my own life. I have two principles that express my core life values:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
Ian Maclaren

Now what does this even mean as a value statement? It means that everyone has their own pile of stuff they’re dealing with to get through the day and I don’t have any idea what that is. So I try to be kind whenever possible. I try to have empathy for others.

For example, are you someone who regularly gets upset in restaurants? The food is taking too long, there’s too much ice in the drink, there’s not enough ice in the drink, you ordered tater tots instead of french fries, whatever. We’ve all seen people like this, right? Someone who expects a teenager making $7/hour to treat him like the King of Norway. Well, I can tell you that I am not that guy. I never complain at restaurants. I almost never send food back and I make sure that if I do, I’m polite about it.

Why? Easy. I’ve worked in restaurants and I know how hard it is. I know what it’s like to work jobs where people are just trying to ruin your day all day long. I also know that those employees are people with lives outside of work, with sick children and overdue bills and relationships that aren’t going well.

Life is hard. It’s hard for everyone. Everyone has a set of troubles they’d like to trade for someone else’s but even that is based on projection. No one really knows what anyone else’s struggles are really like, so remember to be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.

The second core value is derived from a question in the Baptismal Covenant, as expressed by the Episcopal Church:

Will you respect the dignity of every human being?

This question is closely related to the first value statement, which we’ve already discussed at length. For me, this question forces me to disagree with others respectfully, no matter how wrong-headed I find their views. This question forces me to see the homeless as individuals with dignity and value. The same with immigrants, with Patriots fans, and others who struggle for acceptance. It leads me more often than not to seek a place of forgiveness for those I’ve been hurt by and to ask forgiveness from those I’ve hurt.

Be kind. Respect the dignity of every human being.

Two simple statements that are easy to remember but serve as a powerful setting for my moral compass. Spend time discerning your own value statements. Then try to live up to them every minute of every day. That’s how you live a principled life.