Over the years, a number of oak trees around our house have died or lost substantial limbs. Given that we occasionally enjoy a fire in the fireplace, the question became how to ready the wood for burning by cutting and splitting the logs. Cutting to length is easy enough with a chainsaw. Splitting is a bit harder without a hydraulic splitter. Since I don’t have one, I decided to go low tech and use a splitting maul.

It didn’t take long into learning how to split wood by hand before I realized that it was a lot easier to split a log when it was upside down, that is, when the orientation of the log being split is inverted relative to how it was in the living tree. (See photo.)

I’m guessing that the inner structure of the wood grain is optimized to resist the pull of gravity. This makes sense, from the tree’s perspective. The tree wants to remain whole and resist splitting. Since gravity pulls consistently in one direction, the tree will structure itself to be most resistant to splitting in that direction. So, to make hand splitting easier, I turn logs upside down, especially when there are branches and other knotty, difficult-to-split features in the wood.

People are much the same, only it works on a subtler level: we split more easily when our values are inverted.

Like trees, people attain their full stature when the inner structure of our values supports our wholeness, creating an inner resistance to splitting. Honestycourage, and compassion are three values that require wholeness to operate. In turn, they reinforce our wholeness as they are cultivated. Invert any of these values and people start falling apart. They split.

Invert all three, that is, dress up dishonesty, cowardice, and cruelty as virtues, and personal fragmentation is certain to follow. There seems to be a tremendous push right now to do exactly this.

Looking at values through the lens of permaculture, my observation is that honesty, courage, and compassion functionally support one another as design components in the dynamic of a living person: Try being honest – fully honest – without courage. Try being truly compassionate without both honesty and courage. Try being courageous in productive, life-affirming ways without having your courage informed by both honesty and compassion.

Such attempts invariably fail, because these values are functionally related to one another. Operating together within us and between us, honesty, courage, and compassion weave a grain that is resistant to splitting and protective of our wholeness, both as individuals and as a society. They help us stand tall and strong, like trees, and to support one another, like a forest. However, because each of these values both requires and generates wholeness, to the extent that any of them is weakened or inverted, individuals or societies will be more prone to splitting.

This is deep-level permaculture, and it has political implications.

Let’s assume for the moment that there are people in this world whose operating strategy is to divide and rule. If the analysis above holds true, then it makes sense that as our values are inverted, people will be more prone to splitting and, en masse, more pliant to the rule of others.

How do we notice if we’re upside down on the splitting stump? Turns out it’s surprisingly simple: Take note of any messaging that attempts to invert these values, and observe the responses. The messaging can be internally generated or externally generated, so we can pay attention to our own thoughts, speech and actions as well as to the messages and behaviors of politicians, religious or business leaders, media, and advertisers.

If a message or behavior suggests that truth doesn’t matter, or that we should be afraid, or that it’s okay to hate others or disregard their subjective experience, then that message is attempting to invert the values of honesty, courage, and compassion. Again, observe the messaging. You’ll probably see values-inverting messages deeply woven into the prevailing social narratives, then parroted around by adherents of those narratives.

To counter this, an empowering step is to look at the messaging we ourselves are generating. What signals and messages are we sending to ourselves through our own thoughts and actions? What are we transmitting to others? Are we vectors for honesty, courage, and compassion… or for something else?

So if you’re wondering how so-called progressives got to a place where they no longer complain much about war and war crimes, torture, genocide, nuclear proliferation, or civil rights abuses, or on the other hand how self-professed free-market neoliberals tolerate and even defend endless taxpayer subsidies for profitable industries– there’s a clue. As individuals and as a whole, the population is breaking as values invert: where courage would prevail, we are riven by fear, where honesty would give us clarity, we are rendered schizoid by deception, and where compassion is needed we are broken by animosity.

First our values are inverted. Then we split. As this continues, we don’t have the wholeness in us to resist further splitting. At that point, we’re just waiting to be taken to the fire.

Alternately, we can right ourselves. We can notice where our values have become inverted and choose instead to reassert the values known to support life. As we do, we’ll notice that we are not mere logs inverted on the stump of humanity, waiting to be split, but part of a larger, living tree.