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What's Virtue Got to Do With It?

January 22, 2018

When was the last time you had a conversation about virtue?  Maybe it started when someone said something like, "Great to see you! You're looking particularly virtuous today."  No?

 

I can't remember any conversations like that either but I have been increasingly intrigued by the topic of virtue. I'm particularly interested in whether virtue is something that we can develop or if we're forever bound and restricted by our genes from birth.  Is it possible to become more virtuous, to become better versions of ourselves?

 

First, a brief definition: "A virtue is a characteristic of a person which supports individual moral excellence and collective well-being. Virtues are innate good qualities or morals within people."

 

I am neither a scholar nor a scientist so my thoughts are more personal than professional. However, I hold strongly (some might say naively) to the possibility that we can grow to be better people. Not different people, but better versions of ourselves. And I think this kind of growth is possible for us at any point in our lives.  However, our natural tendency is to stay just the way we are. That reminds me of a story.

 

My son got a spanking in the first grade for something the teacher thought was disrespectful. I wasn't there but eventually got to hear both sides of the story. When I heard from him, he didn't seem to know why he was punished.  Not too surprising since he was so young. According to the teacher, she noticed that he wasn't following instructions for some bit of work she had asked the class to do quietly at their desk. When asked why he wasn't doing the assignment, he responded, "I guess that's just the way I'm made." She may have been right. It may have been disrespectful. Or, maybe it was a remarkable display of self-awareness from a six-year-old boy who sensed something about his innate qualities. The truth may be somewhere in the middle - after all, he was only six.

 

Whatever his motive, I think the statement is meaningful. Who of us hasn't said something similar, "that's just the way I am." Which brings me back to my original question, "Is it possible to become better versions of ourselves?"

 

I'm halfway through a book on virtue that is already on my "must read" list for all my friends.  Mark McMinn teaches psychology at George Fox University and has written an excellent book titled The Science of Virtue. He makes the audacious claim that we can become more virtuous people by recognizing and cultivating the strengths of character that we each possess. Citing his own research as well as that of others in the field of positive psychology, he believes that it is indeed possible to develop virtues such as wisdom, forgiveness, gratitude, humility and hope, to name just a few. 

 

Most people probably agree that we can become more skilled people. We can learn to do things better. I play trumpet on most days and find that I can still improve. I've recently discovered a better way of doing time management that has proven beneficial. I could go on with a long list of things I might improve on, but what about my character? How would I improve that?

 

A quick google search will give you a long list of articles with titles like "10 Steps to Becoming a Better Person" or "How to Become a Better Person in Just Seven Days." My personal favorite is "83 Ways to Become a Better Person."  Sounds exhausting to me!  You're welcome to look them up but I don't recommend any of them. Instead, I think Aristotle had it right.  We become better people, more virtuous people through the way we think (education) and the way we act (habits). The thoughts we choose to dwell on and the corresponding actions we choose to take will affect our character, for good or ill.  The book I cited earlier says that there are three steps, (1) a vision of what's possible, (2) understanding of our purposes, and (3) movement toward a goal.  Someone else worth quoting said, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things." (Philippians 4:8) The implication is that the thoughts we choose will shape our character.

 

So, what do you think? Is that just the way we are or can we become better people?  Can you really become a person who is wiser by cultivating the virtue of wisdom? How about becoming a more forgiving person? More grateful, humble, hopeful? What if you did? What if others around you did? I find the possibilities intriguing.

 

 

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