My students and I were discussing Arthur Miller’s The Crucible today. We’ve come to the fourth act and most of them are horrified by the behavior of Abigail Williams and her companions in cruelty. One of the questions on our final analysis sheet asks about the difference between the values of Elizabeth Proctor and Mary Warren. What made Elizabeth lie, when she had spent a lifetime clinging to honesty? What made Mary Warren tell a different lie, even though she knew it meant death for those she accused? What did one value that the other did not?
I found myself breaking up a fight in the hallway not twenty minutes after that discussion. Ironically enough, the fight was between two of the students who had just walked out of my classroom. As happens in most fights, it started with words – cruel, unkind and likely untrue – and ended in fists and curses flying.
What values did student A have that allowed the antagonism that began it? What was worth so much to student B that it was worth throwing punches over? Perhaps more important, where were the values that should have told them to cut each other a little slack? To be kind? To be empathetic?
Perhaps Abigail was right when she said that Satan is no respecter of persons, but I think that it has to come down to what we value. Does valuing one thing affect the value we place on another? If we value money, do we value honor less? If we value honesty, does that make us less tolerant, or more? I must admit that I don’t know the answer. Nor do I claim to know which values are best or highest.
I only know that when I cling to my core values, I am less likely to hurt others, to act in anger, to violate my own conscience. It is when I drift from that core that the forest of my life burns and I am left scrambling, trying to put out the fires of my own making.
The infinite Tree grows,
Faith roots deep, reaches up, reaches out;
Honor holds the steadfast core,
Branches into beloved generations.
Leafed with vision,
Fed by devotion,
This is the center of me,
The thriving life within,
This is the soul of me,
The touch of God against my spirit’s skin.