Here my grandfather has crouched down to share some reading with me. I often cite my grandfather when I write about virtues because he was one consistently trustworthy man in my childhood. He lived 3000 miles away, but he stayed in touch with letters, post cards from his travels abroad, and twice yearly long distance telephone calls. Three different summers we traveled East and I spent extended time with him and my grandmother. I could rely on his constancy and trustworthiness. He never promised what he could not follow through on. He didn’t make false promises just to cheer me up.
In Connecticut, a politician who promised the elimination of the state income tax was defeated. I think a majority of residents saw that this was a false promise, unlikely to be achieved without significant upheaval in services. Everyone would like to have no taxes, but they are our collective way of paying for shared services. By now we have become jaded by politicians promising things–peace with North Korea, peace in the Middle East, a return to 1950’s America–that are unlikely to be fulfilled. In fact we have come to distrust politicians for just such false promises.
I’m not sure that trust has to earned, as many believe, but I do believe it can be lost. I like to think that I begin with giving someone the benefit of the doubt and that my trust has to be broken. Sadly broken trust can take a long time to repair. At heart I think trustworthiness means following through on promises, not agreeing to something just to placate someone(with no intention of doing it!) and meaning what one says. I worshiped among Quakers for many years. They didn’t believe in swearing oaths. Rather they believed that they should “let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.” That seems a right path to follow.
I am pondering the virtue of hope and wondering how it is different from wishful thinking. I first remembered an old saying “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” That certainly suggests the futility of just wishing for something. Then sometimes denial masquerades as wishful thinking. “I’m sure he won’t use on his father’s birthday.” That kind of thinking often keeps someone from seeing and acknowledging the truth.
What then signifies hope? For Emily Dickinson “Hope is the thing with feathers–That perches in the soul–And sings the tune without the words–And never stops at all.” A small bird then nestled deep inside of someone singing without ceasing. Hope does seem intrinsic sometimes, something we are born with, an expectation that things will work out somehow. Of course many experiences can dash, squash and hamper hope. Cynicism seems a logical retreat when hopes are so often met with disappointment. But since the ancients saw hope as a virtue, I am considering the possibility that I and others can nurture it.
I’m not clear on how to feed hope when so much around me feeds despair and cynicism. Good music seems to feed the little bird of hope in me. So does attending weekly Mass. Gratitude for what is serves to remind me that past times of despair preceded present times of joy. May I continue to learn how to nurture hope and counter discouragement. May I be open to learning from others how to keep hope alive.
In the 1980’s New York City had many abandoned buildings, many of them next to the commuter rail line coming from the suburbs. Someone came up with the idea to put decals of curtains and blinds on the windows to seem as if they were occupied. Above you can see the semi-success of this idea. Of course these decals didn’t change anything, they just put a more attractive face on things.
When I say someone is of good character, I don’t mean that they appear attractive on the surface. If someone just looks, but isn’t, reliable I might call her a “character,” but I wouldn’t mean that they had character. Character itself seems to be rather scarce in many circles right now. Many people are concerned with their facade and not their inner person. “Selfies” represent the facade but give us no clue about the person’s character.
When I think of someone with character I imagine that they behave basically the same whether or not someone is looking on. I expect that if one of those snooping television program spied on the person, it would find no real surprises. Steadiness seems to mark someone with character. Of course, steadiness doesn’t fill cable news or grocery store tabloids. So in general we are exposed endlessly to people pretending to be someone they aren’t. I think that the inundation of news about duplicity makes us all a little jaded. It’s easy to think that no one is really who they appear to be. But cynicism doesn’t serve us well. I hope that I can continue to see and acknowledge character in people I know and observe. Decals may cover abandoned buildings, but they don’t bring about actual renewal.
Courage stands among the list of virtues, and I paused today to reflect on it and bravado, courage’s imposter. Our airwaves are full of statements of bravado and demonstrations of cowardice. Bravado exists to inflate, courage exists to enable difficult action. Above I stand in the perfect stance of bravado, pointing my cap gun at any intruder. Since I am only four, people will pretend to cower before me. But some adults use weapons in the same way, with disastrous results. Too often they give weak adults a sense of bravery, when they only give them a way to do senseless harm.
When I was growing up, I thought that courage was something boys had a patent on. They would grow up to fight wars, climb mountains, face wild beasts and defeat evil. No one ever stressed the necessity of courage for daily life. As an adult I find many opportunities for courage, though none involving mountains or wild beasts. Mine are the quiet, uncelebrated acts, most often of speaking the truth. Boundary setting, not with a wall but with words, requires courage. Saying no to bigotry when confronted with it takes courage. Refusing to join in gossip, no matter how delicious, takes courage.
No one ever told me that fear is an active component of courage. There is an old adage “courage is fear that has said its prayers.” Moving fully into truth, whether about our past or our present takes courage. It also can make us quake in fear. Sometimes we do get backlash when we are brave. But I look at the law makers of this country afraid to challenge the President and wonder what it would take for them to act with courage. Whatever it is, I hope they find it. Otherwise bravado will continue to take center stage.
Nearly every one feels protective toward a new baby, even though the newborn is completely dependent and unable to do anything for herself. At the rite of Baptism at church, every face, no matter how beaten down, lightens as the baby is processed into the sanctuary. A sense of tenderness fills the space as we all feel compassion for the tired young parents. We don’t pity them.
What makes compassion a virtue and pity something people dislike? I think compassion involves feeling with and for the other. We imagine how it might be to be that person, whether we have had the same experience or not. We are equals at heart if not in the particular instance of suffering. We know that we too have been or could be in the same situation and we care for the other.
I think pity stands apart from and looks down on one who suffers. We know that WE would not have taken it so hard. WE would be over it by now. WE would never let that happen to us. So we extend what looks like care but is accurately received by the recipient as pity. No one likes to be pitied because none of us want to be seen as less than.
Compassion joins with. Pity sits apart. I like to think about the difference in both my behavior and in peoples’ responses to my times of trial. I hope to provide compassion more often than pity.
Uriah Heep, a central character in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, prides himself on the extent of his “umbleness.” He is the most “umble” person we are ever likely to meet, he suggests. And we certainly know the people who, in the name of humility, swat away compliments with “it was nothing.” When surveying the remains of a fancy dinner party, we know that it most certainly was “something,” not “nothing.” So is that what humility means today?
The actual virtue of humility challenges us most, I think, in our daily lives. Do we, without priding ourselves endlessly for it, let a car into traffic when we see it waiting for a break? I too often push ahead, determining that it is MY turn to go. Do we recognize that the person ahead of us in line has as much right to customer service as we do? Or do we occasionally huff loudly hoping they will hurry up? Can I realize that someone who votes for someone I disagree with has the same democratic right to her ballot as I do? Not always, that’s for sure.
At the heart of true humility is the virtue of seeing that every single person on the planet has equal value. Not greater value, not lesser value, but equal value. Very little in American culture supports this ideal. Bragging is endemic. Stepping on others on the way up is normalized. Disregard for the “little person”(in true humility there is of course no such being) defines much of our policy decisions.
In 12 steps groups, participants take regular inventory of their character flaws. Today I am challenging myself to think more deeply about humility. Not to be more “umble” than Uriah Heep, but to recognize the worth of everyone I encounter.
Right now in the United States we are watching an endless demonstration of all kinds of vice: lechery, greed, selfishness, and intolerance to name a few. Many casual conversations are of the “ain’t it awful” variety where people bemoan the state of things, outdoing each other with tale of the latest outrage. Not only is it exhausting, it is indirectly morally corrosive. Even though we seem to be attacking another’s vice, we often get caught up in the same behavior.
In my faith, today is All Saints Day, and I share a quote from St. Paul:”whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” So for a while I will be reflecting on that old fashioned subject “virtue.” It turns out there are many lists of virtues, but I will try to reflect on those that challenge me now or did in the past.
Today’s photo is of my beloved grandfather Niles Carpenter on the day he received his PhD from Harvard. He studied both at the Episcopal Seminary and at Harvard, never wanting to plant his foot firmly in either camp. He became an ordained Episcopal priest but spent the majority of his life as a professor of sociology. For me he embodied many of the virtues, and I remember him, a secular saint, today.