The Unglamorous Virtues

Johannes Vermeer, "The Astronomer," 1668
Johannes Vermeer, “The Astronomer,” 1668

The virtues are easy to write about because they’re mostly applicable across the spectrum of the world’s religions, or even if you’re none at all. After all, not only is it a truism that all religions have a common ethical core, it’s also a very essential fact that allows us to live peacefully side by side in a pluralistic society. Interestingly, whether you’re on Team Organized Religion, or Team Vaguely Spiritual, certain virtues have been getting unfairly shoved aside in current writing on self-improvement, while others receive top billing.

Everyone wants to have The Courage to Live their Dreams, or The Compassion to Connect with Others, but what about the virtues that enable us to practice courage and compassion? These unglamorous virtues, as I think of them, are actually the meta-virtues that transform individual good acts into habits that stick over a long period of time: among them, although not a comprehensive list, are patience, perseverance, humility, and loyalty.

Patience is a difficult virtue because many people confuse it with being a doormat. The word itself even comes from the Latin “pati,” “to suffer or endure,” and so many think of it as a state of passive suffering, of not sticking up for yourself. In fact, patience, when properly employed, is a sign of inner strength, not weakness. Patience basically means we have the mental and emotional resources to absorb irritations, setbacks, and insults without being shaken or thrown off course. The most patient people typically have a very solid sense of themselves, and know that temporary, external changes don’t really threaten them. Someone impatient, on the other hand, is a loose cannon who will “freak out” when something bad happens to them, and likely go rushing off on a search to transfer that harm to others. For a concrete example of this, watch Washington, D.C. drivers in traffic.

If patience is, in some ways, a “thou shalt not” kind of virtue that involves not reacting negatively to events, perseverance is the positive version of patience. Perseverance is the quality that allows us to build good relationships (both friendship and romantic), good careers, and skill in our hobbies and extracurricular interests. Quite simply, your friends will annoy you, and your chosen interest will  seem impossibly hard and not worth the effort at some point. Nobody escapes without some kind of difficulty in their lives.

Modern society, by the way, is definitely set up to enable a lack of perseverance: can’t get your blue belt in jiu jitsu? Try zumba instead! The moves in zumba are too hard to follow? A new kickboxing gym just opened down the road! I don’t care what your hobbies are, but for heaven’s sake, if you find something that genuinely interests you, then do yourself a favor and dedicate yourself to really trying to build skill in it by consistent practice over time, rather than just taking a nibble.

Humility: I think most people will always claim that they strive to be humble, while maintaining an inner horror of this quality. We really do love thinking that we’re better than others, and we might as well admit this to ourselves. Perversely, half the time we log onto facebook, we do so not to share in one another’s joys, but to snark at our acquaintances’ latest apparent missteps. Humility is also paradoxical because the more we think about cultivating it, the less humble and the more self-righteous we’re likely to become.

What’s a decent person on Team Organized Religion or Team Vaguely Spiritual to do, then? It’s simple (and also really difficult): instead of thinking about humility, do an honest evaluation of your own strengths and weaknesses, and then just live your life using that information. Stop peeking over at your neighbor to see if they’re smarter or stronger or more flexible than you, because the only thing you really can do is improve yourself, starting from wherever you are. If you don’t feel like being humble, at least shun comparison, which is basically the same thing. Humility, rather than being the dour, sackcloth-and-ashes virtue we perceive it to be, is actually the most liberating.

If you haven’t noticed by now, all of these virtues relate to interpersonal relationships and how the self interacts with others. They do not, at least directly, concern the individual’s relationship with God, since that would take us into the realm of specific religions. The last of our virtues, loyalty, is also interpersonal.

Modern culture places a very low value on loyalty. In fact, people see this as an archaic virtue, something that belongs in the age of Vikings or of feudalism, and not among contemporary, post-modern, Western people. Loyalty is at a low ebb today in part because, well, the incentives to loyalty and the punishments for disloyalty are far less dramatic than they used to be. Historically, loyalty tended to be most valued in societies where everyone had to band together and consolidate their strength for survival against menacing, clear-and-present-danger external forces. The Medieval poet Dante Alighieri, for example, imagined traitors in the lowest, worst circle of his Inferno, a poem which, if ever faithfully made into a movie, would probably receive an NC-17 rating for its lurid tortures. Nowadays, if you don’t like your friends, significant other, religion, career, or hobby, you just go get a new one.

Why, then, should we value loyalty? After all, there are no barbarians at the gates, and society does not fall when someone switches social circles. I value loyalty because, very simply, it’s part of what enables us to have real relationships with others, rather than mere business transactions. If you are friends with Mr. Smith because he shovels your driveway in the winter, and you give him vegetables from your garden in the summer, what you have is not really a friendship, but a barter situation.

Now, friends might shovel one another’s driveways, or give each other produce from their gardens, but they’re not friends simply because the other person fulfills this function. To reduce another person to “what they can do for you” is, as my favorite philosopher Martin Buber said, to reduce an “I-thou” relationship to an “I-it” relationship. Loyalty, on the other hand, is the resolve to be friends with another person simply because they are who they are, even if they come down with a chronic illness and can never do you another favor in your life.

I think American culture, in particular, neglects these unglamorous virtues because all of these virtues can be seen most clearly over a long period of time. Americans do not like waiting, we do not like tradition, and we don’t like trying things the old way- our ancestors immigrated from other countries because they didn’t want to wait for a better life, they wanted to go make a better life for themselves. In colonial times, some referred to America as the New Jerusalem, as though we would somehow be free from the common, perennial failings of human nature. We are the culture of quick fixes- you get plastic surgery if you don’t like your outer appearance, and you have a conversion experience and take on a new, spiritual persona if you don’t like your inner failings.

In reality, true, positive change hardly ever happens overnight. It almost always happens with the aid of the unglamorous virtues, however. Sometimes we enjoy moments of illumination or of sudden realization, but for the most part our progress is more like a series of small returnings than a dramatic change of course. We are always trying to rediscover the joy of our interests, or our love for those who are close to us.


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