Monday, November 3, 2008


So, being nearly exhausted from that exercise and exploration of the concept of "sin" I have decided to explore the concept of "virtue." Why not? One good mental hernia deserves another, right? Hang on Queenie, here we go...

"Virtue" was something we girls were cautioned to protect at all costs when we were young, but something that we were most eager to be rid of as soon as possible, it seemed. But not too soon. Girls who had "lost their virtue" earlier than high school were looked upon very strangely and with scorn, and those in high school, depending upon what year we were in at the time, were looked upon with jealousy or ridicule or scandal. But that is just one definition of virtue.

I dug out my ratty old Webster's to look up the official definition of "virtue."(Remember Webster's? Big, fat, red book with onion-skin thin pages, lots of columns and teeny, tiny type? Yeah, "dictionaries," they were called. But I digress.) Webster's says that virtue is: "n. 1. moral excellence; goodness; righteousness. 2. conformity of one's life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude. 3. chastity, esp. in a girl or woman: to lose one's virtue." It goes on for a dozen definitions, but you get the picture. Funny how it was the third definition that was first in my mind. Must be stuck in yesterday's post still. Heh.

Traditional Christian texts identify seven basic virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Courage, Faith, Hope and Love. The first four of these are considered "cardinal virtues," and the latter three "theological virtues," presumably because the first four can be exhibited to others by our behavior, but the last ones can only be shown truly in the heart.

But this is not a term paper. This is my exercise in writing and thinking to see what sense I can make of issues that have confounded theologians and philosophers for centuries. What do I make of virtue? What place does it have in my life and my world? How do I define it, what value do I place on it, and is it of a greater or lesser concern than its black-sheep sibling, sin?

Virtue, as far as I can see, is the fine art of doing the right thing, and for the right reasons. Virtuous behavior has less value to me if it is done before a crowd or an audience. Even Jesus cautioned against public displays of personal virtue, advising people to do good works without recognition.

I suppose Humility, then, would be a virtue, although it is not listed specifically as such. I define humility in much the same way St. Francis of Assissi did in his prayer - to seek to serve rather than be served, to give rather than receive, to help rather than be helped. I try to do that each day, but often my ego and my selfishness get in the way. I like to do good things for others, but often I like to be praised for my efforts. In my mind, that sort of self-seeking wipes out any positive balance on that cosmic balance sheet that I might have made with the good deed itself.

Humility is difficult, and it is very different than humiliation. Humility is a voluntary surrender of the ego, a willful letting go of one's will, as it were. Humiliation is when some one, or some thing, takes your will and your dignity away. Humiliation is what happens when a parent belittles a child in public. Humility is when the parent publicly says "I was wrong" to the child.

Virtue seems impossible to define without including its opposite, vice. How do we talk about generosity without mentioning avarice? How do we discuss gentleness without including violence? Love vs. hate. Faith vs. doubt. It is too large to contemplate in one day, in one essay.

I suppose having virtue can be defined as being ethical, even when no one is looking. Being virtuous means more than being cash-register honest, it means being truthful and kind and considerate. It can also mean NOT rescuing someone who dearly needs to fail in order to grow. It also means not becoming so giving that you lose yourself to others. In order to respect others, I must first respect myself. In order to love others, I must first be capable of receiving love myself. Otherwise, the gift of self is not made as a gift but in an effort to fill a hole within.

For years I tried to practice virtue by helping always, putting myself last and making sure everyone's needs were taken care of before mine. A few years ago, though, I did some heavy-duty 12-step recovery work and began to change some things about myself. I determined that the group of people I had been associating with socially did not think much of me or me of them. I stopped calling them, and they seemed not to notice. That let me know all I needed to know.

I stopped relying upon others for my own self-worth and began to rely upon myself. Is this selfish? I don't think so. Is it indicative of an over-inflated ego? Not at all. We are talking here about self-worth. I have more now than I did then, and I will not allow myself to accept second-class treatment from anyone or any group. Is this virtuous? Not in itself, no. But it allowed me to develop virtuous thought processes and behaviors that were about offering real service and real gifts and not about seeking praise. Now I can do the right thing and not give a damn who notices. Sometimes, anyway. I still struggle with it.

Before I began to treat myself with dignity, I had no clear idea how to treat others that way. Before I was merciful to myself, I had no understanding of how important it was to show mercy to others. Before I began to be kind to myself, I had no real idea what it meant to be kind to others. A gift offered with strings attached is not a gift, it comes at a certain price. A gift offered freely is more valuable than any gold.

So virtue begins at home. "To Thine Own Self Be True" says the coin I get each year on my sobriety date. And it is true. But also on that coin is a triangle with the words "Unity" "Service" and "Recovery." The foundation of the triangle is Recovery, for without it, nothing else is possible. The two sides of the triangle are named Unity and Service. All three are necessary for a new life, and while the emphasis may shift around from time to time in a person's growth and development, all three are required if I am to grow and become the virtuous person I strive to be.

So: virtue. In my mind it means to be the person that my spiritual growth is leading me to be. It means to be good and kind and ethical and merciful, to treat others as I would have them treat me, to do the right thing even when nobody is looking, to show kindness and dignity to everyone I meet, even the ones who irritate me. It is to stand tall when others cower, to speak the unpopular truth, to work for justice and to be honest.

Please may I become all that. May I become that person. May I do the right thing without needing approval or praise. May I intuitively know how to handle situations. May virtue inhabit me and become my nature. This is my goal.


Butch Boo said...

Think you're almost there...cos having the insight on things is the starter



Anonymous said...

By your definition, I would be considered virtuous. I do not feel virtuous. I do not always act virtuous. I do not consider myself virtuous. Hm. Something to consider. Is virtue in the eye of the beholder?