Monday, June 30, 2014

thoughts on virtue

Photo taken at Botanical Gardens in Asheville, NC
When facing life's pain, I feel a need to commit to a belief system that grounds me.  I guess this is what religions provide many people.  I've found that my beliefs have come to me as I reflected on my experiences and sought goodness and clarity through much of the chaotic struggle of life.

There definitely were times that my personal philosophies were wayyy off.  But forming them and expressing them to myself and then realizing how flawed they were helped me to eventually discard them with conviction, and then replace them with more appropriate beliefs.  Here's an example.  It felt like I was called to be a strong, self-sacrificing woman.  I could tell (I thought) that I was stronger than those around me, so I decided I'd follow Christ's example in taking in all the evils and darkness in the world and giving forth love.  In my friendships I focused on being there for others, but felt uncomfortable leaning on them.  After spending time with others, I could only relax and care for myself when alone.  I kept my deepest joys private.

Then came marriage.  Living with someone meant that my fundamentally unsustainable approach to relationships (giving too much, not really knowing how to take care of myself when others were around) eventually had to fall apart.  This wasn't a pretty process, but I am grateful for it.  I'm glad that I have had to struggle through the discomfort of asking for things I needed.  Instead of keeping my interests and desires secret, I've brought them into the open and gained freedom and joy.

Because I can recall forming the idea of being a self-sacrificing Christ-like hero, I was able to see and reject that behavior.  I identified it as self-neglect, which fostered resentment and frustration about the fact that my life wasn't going the way I wanted it to.


Here's another belief I've held for some time.  We could call it "Virtue is its own reward."  Not in the smug, self-congratulatory sense.  To me this means that there is no external reward for 'good' actions.  Good actions benefit you and are good because they are beneficial.  Bad actions are those which do harm to ourselves or others (usually ourselves and others).  Calling things "good" and "bad" isn't really necessary but it is a common shorthand.  Is it morally wrong to leave garbage on the beach?  Is it wrong to constantly think self-critical thoughts?  Why worry about whether it's wrong?  These are not healthy choices.  

Believing this helps me because it's not fear of punishment that directs me to make 'good' choices.  It's knowing that good/healthy choices are better for me and for other people in my life.

This also helps me to deal with encounters with people who are unkind or insensitive.  Rather than seething over their inconsideration, and becoming cynical that there is no justice, I believe that justice is always at hand, and the person who acts unkindly is hurting themself as well as me.  Of course it may be their own pain that causes them to lash out as well.  But to respond with nastiness towards others only deepens the pain and the separation from fellow-humans.

On a good day, I can hold on to this and remain grounded even when bad things happen, when people are selfish, or refuse to respond reasonably to polite requests.

On a bad day, I feel separate from others, lonely in my misery, and am probably just as 'bad' as anyone else, kicking a flower out of unhappiness and the need to spread my pain.  Not a good approach, and it feels bad, too.

A married man who has a habit of flirting with other women is hurting his wife's feelings.  She has a right to be angry.  At the same time, this man is hurting himself.  He is weakening his relationship with the person who could be his strongest ally.  Why would he do this do himself?  There is probably a reason why.  Dig a little deeper and understand that these behaviors have roots and histories.  It doesn't excuse the behavior, but it helps to have a different perspective.  Otherwise it just looks like there is a jerk who hurts his wife and gets away with it, and she just has to put up with it.


I travelled to Asheville, North Carolina for five days last week.  Mountains, music, and art, with a lot of creative and spiritually minded people.
Hiking off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville