A long-time friend of mine recently bestowed a gift on me, one that has intrigued, perplexed and annoyed all at the same time. It may seem strange that one small gift could accomplish all of this, but given the nature of the giver, I would expect no less.
George is an octogenarian, and one who has stuffed a great many experiences into his years, whether in vocation, family, service to others or contemplation of self. For these reasons, as well as the fact that he is simply a very nice man, I enjoy meeting with him every so often for excellent conversation. Neither one of us will ever be able to recount the winners and losers at The Academy Awards, but both of us like to expound upon what is right and what is wrong with the world today. We both pretend to have the answers, if not the questions.
The gift he brought to me is no less than a presentation of life’s virtues. One hundred thoughtful descriptions of moral excellence and goodness of character are printed on 4X5 cards, along with certain actions which embody the particular virtue. They are a product of The Virtues Project, an international initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life. Each day at breakfast, I’m confronted with a new aspect of right action and thinking which may or may not be attributable to myself. But they’re good triggers for thought and conversation with my wife, as I either claim ownership of a virtue or confess my weakness of it. (I am too afraid to keep track of whether I have more “hits” than “misses.”) The object is not keeping score, but reflecting on one’s personal posture.
The experience is stimulating. I mean, how often do most of us have the questions posed about our daily existence and how we have chosen to live it? Consider matters of integrity. Honesty. Humanity. Commitment. Honor. Gratitude. Faith. Empathy. Grace. Generosity. Love. Peacefulness. Responsibility. Sacrifice. Tolerance. Truth. The list is as long as it is deep. Serious reflection of virtue is sobering, affirming and complex, all at the same time.
Yet there is a sort of elitist quality about contemplation of such things. My past week in Nicaragua reminds me that consideration of manners and philosophies often becomes subjugated in light of the daily grind of feeding one’s family or securing the particulars of suitable shelter. In some cases, circumstances tend to bend absolute virtues, or at least place them in conflict with other virtuous aims.
I do not imply that Nicaraguan peasants are without virtuous living; in fact, the reality is quite the opposite. My experiences with rural Nica farmers often have been object lessons about living with dignity and hope despite enormously difficult circumstances. Virtuous behaviors come from within, cultivated from generations of living in concert with their faith, the earth and one another, rather than from a conscious deliberation of what “ought to be.”
What occurs to me in the understanding of living against great odds is that the opportunity for meditation on matters of virtue and how to cultivate such behaviors is almost non-existent. The conscious deliberation of what “ought to be” is too often a luxury afforded to those who are well off enough to indulge in contemplation of 4X5 cards.
Perhaps the observations are of no note. Certainly, those who have been blessed with opportunity for musing on such matters have brought about only a modest degree of change and equity in the world: children still starve against the virtues of Generosity, Humanity, Justice, Mercy and Sacrifice. In my own reading of the virtues, I long for the recognition of them inherent within myself, regardless of the words on the cards. But it is not always so, and the gentle reminders of what I could be are blessings to embrace.
There’s still time. The questions are not complete, the answers not finished, our lives are not done, our legacies are not written and our virtues are not known until the end of our days….