Misunderstanding Virtue by Michael Hardy

Misunderstanding Virtue by Michael Hardy, July 11, 2013
One of the best aspects of Unitarian Universalism as a religion is its emphasis on encouraging virtue rather than on stigmatizing vice. Instead of a list of ‘thou shalt nots’ or a fixation on ‘sin,’ we offer Seven Principles, a positive approach to personal growth rather a negative one. We don’t always live up to them, but as goals to aspire to, they are commendable. Our seven principles are not the only idea of virtue in the world. The wisdom literature of all of the world’s religions provide lists, discussions and poetry about virtuous living. Mythologies and lore of various cultures explain their ideas of virtue in story. Philosophers expound on the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of virtue.I recently put some thought into virtue as part of an educational program through ar n’Draiocht Fein, a modern Druid order of which Lynda and I are members. (adf.org) One of the assignments was to consider ADF’s list of nine virtues, how they’re commonly defined, and what they might mean in real application. Pagan religion in general, you see, is much more about good qualities for living, rather than rules and restrictions.In completing that requirement of the study program, I started with the dictionary definitions, and then considered how those definitions fit in real situations. I came to realize that I often disagreed with the dictionary. Defining a word is much easier and neat than living by its meaning.Virtue, it turns out, is fairly simple in concept but it can quite complicated in practical application. Life isn’t always straightforward. While it’s fine to say, in the abstract, that honesty is a virtue, for example, or that honesty is defined as revealing the truth without omission, life presents us with any number of situations where keeping silent, shading the truth or even outright deception might actually be the better course of action.This morning, I want to talk about three of the virtues on that list and then one other related concept.

We’ll start with wisdom, because in working through the assignment I found that wisdom seems to be an aspect of just about every other virtue you can think of. Wisdom is the discretion of honesty that keeps it from becoming tactless gossip. Wisdom is the experience that allows a person of integrity – one who wants to do the right thing – to know just what the right thing is. Wisdom turns a creative dabbler into an artist by helping narrow down the many pursuits a person finds interesting into one or two to study in depth and grow in skill.

Wisdom is in many ways borne of experience, and it is no fault of the younger person to be less wise than the elder. But experience does not lead to wisdom automatically. It is the responsibility of each person to live in an active engagement with life and the world that facilitates the increase of wisdom.

But often we consider wisdom to be a function of age and experience. “Old and wise” is a cliché phrase for a reason, and often, the association of age with wisdom is accurate. But I’ve found that it’s not always the case. Not all of the young people lack wisdom, nor does age automatically confer it. To gain in wisdom, I believe, requires living mindfully.

This is a theme I’ve hit on in the past, in other sermons I’ve given here. It is important, I think, to observe life, not just travel through it. We gain wisdom not just from having experiences, but from paying attention to those experiences. If something went badly, what was the reason? If we succeeded, was there something special we did that allowed the success?

However, wisdom need not come from personal experience. As an old saying goes, “Everyone learns from experience, but only a fool insists that the experience must be his own.” The two bad bouts of poison ivy I’ve had this summer attest to that. I can now give advice to others on how to identify it and what to do about it, but I sure would have preferred to have learned it in a less painful way.

But experience does not need to even be real to be instructive. I am sure we’ve all had the experience of learning something important from a novel or a film. We probably all have some favorite proverbs, and we can see how other people’s life choices influence their futures. Absorbing wisdom vicariously is just as valid as through our own experience, if it enriches our own abilities to think and act wisely.

As I grow older, I find I’m somewhere in between a youth and an elder. I can offer some wisdom, but I’m still in need of much myself. Wisdom is a lifelong pursuit, a virtue we never stop growing in, if we are observant and living mindfully.

Wisdom segues naturally into courage. This is one where I really argued with the dictionary. The Random House dictionary describes courage as, “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.” I do not really agree with that. I think it’s more accurate to say it is, “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., despite fear.”
Courage, you see, requires wisdom. People who rush headlong into danger heedless of the risk, without fear, are not being brave, not showing courage. The better word for that is reckless. From the outside, it may look the same. A person rushing into a burning building to save someone inside might be afraid of the risks to himself but choosing to act anyway, or he might really be heedless of the danger. One of those is brave, the other just crazy.

See, it’s not especially courageous to feel no fear. We don’t have any temptation to avoid actions we don’t fear. Courage is the balancing point between cowardice and recklessness. It is to do that which is difficult and dangerous in order to achieve a worthy goal. It is to act despite fear, not without fear.

Do not mistake recklessness for courage: Courage takes risks and dangers into account, recklessness ignores them. Courage leads to dangerous actions taken for good reason, recklessness leads to dangerous actions undertaken for their own sake. In the same vein, just as to charge ahead is not necessarily courage, to retreat is not necessarily cowardice. It can be an act of courage to defer taking action when under great pressure to act.

And this, again, is where wisdom comes in. Faced with pressure to act and fear of what will happen if we do, wisdom brings the necessary clearheadedness to choose. Do we act through fear, or do we defer despite pressure? There is no single right answer – it’s as case-by-case as can be – which means courage is not always obvious or overt.

Now we come to piety. I suspect piety may be a tough one for many Unitarian Universalists, because in its most basic meaning it refers to proper worship of the gods, or God. For those Uus who believe in some form of diety, the virtue of piety may be something worthy of contemplation and practice. But what about our atheist and agnostic members?

In the course of researching piety from a pagan perspective, I learned that it doesn’t need to solely be about gods. Ancestors and nature itself can be honored with ritual and right behavior. We’re light on ritual in the UU tradition, but as other religious traditions can teach us, its important.

Ritual formalizes our devotion to someone or something. By enacting a shared set of steps, reading words, involving others in the occasion and, most importantly, doing it the same at the same time on a regular basis – yearly, for most – creates a mindfulness that nothing else quite manages. It’s even better if it’s something traditional, something that builds a continuity between you and the past. People have marked events such as solstices and equinoxes, plantings and harvests for thousands of years. Our society maintains some echoes of these things in holidays such as Halloween, but for the most part we don’t take them seriously.

What if we did? Halloween as an example, today is a fun time for children. Costumes, candy, ghost stories, trick-or-treat. But traditionally, Halloween was a night where people believed the veil between this world and the spirit world was thin and the spirits of the dead might roam among us. What if we developed rituals for the grownups on that night to remember those who have passed on and honor them?

This idea is a form of piety that allows belief in a spirit world but does not require it. It is a practice that any UU could engage in, regardless of his or her personal theology, and find fulfilling. One idea would be to set a place at the dinner table for a relative or friend you wish to remember and raise a glass in toast to that person as the meal begins, and then keep the dinner conversation on shared memories. It’s simple and inexpensive, but by designating a specific time for it and creating a consistent format, it becomes a family tradition.

Or you could create rituals around the seasons. Even something as  simple as a nature walk held faithfully on each equinox and solstice develops a mindfulness about the turning of the year and the rhythm of the seasons.

Piety is a worthwhile virtue to practice, with or without a belief in higher spiritual powers. Ritual, regular practice, mindfulness, all contribute to a deepening of one’s awareness of the world around us, and to building connections among family members and friends who become part of the traditions we create.

That brings me to sacrifice. Sacrifice is often thought of as a loss. It usually means giving something up. But the word comes from the same root as ‘sacred’ and has a similar meaning: to make something sacred, set apart. In pagan religion it often means something as simple as pouring a glass of wine on the ground in offering, rather than drinking it ourselves.

This might sound like another tough one for UUs of a humanist bent. If you do not believe in a god, to what are you dedicating this sacrifice? But in fact, UUs often make profound sacrifices.  Vegetarians, for example, sacrifice the pleasure of eating meat for the sake of a larger principle. Some of us sacrifice conveniences of modern life for the sake of the planet’s ecology. And of course, many UUs turn up on the front lines of social justice movements, risking arrest – a sacrifice of liberty and possibly reputation – for the sake of a cause or principle.

Many parents give up financial resources on behalf of their children – for the basics, but also for higher education and other options – out of a devotion to their children and to the future of our society. “Sacrifice,” then is better thought of not as a loss but a setting aside of something for a higher reason.

Virtue is an idea that doesn’t always get a lot of thought. We think we know what it means, we think we know what individual virtues are all about, and that’s enough. Once you get under the surface, though, the idea turns out to be multilayered, and a rich vein for contemplation. As you strive to live virtually, take some time to think about just what that means.


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