Thoughts On Virtues That Can Only Be Preached By Being Practiced

One of the unfortunate ironies of life, and one that many parents no doubt greatly regret, is that our example is far more easily copied than our exhortations to virtue [1].  So it was with a fair amount of amusement and interest that I enjoyed a sermon yesterday from one of the deacons of our congregation on the subjects of patience and forbearance and what we are expected to put up with from other brethren.  Now, I do not generally consider myself to be a particularly patient person, and I doubt that anyone who has seen the irritation and frustration that I show when dealing with people in my way on the road or in the supermarket or any other place where slow people seem to find themselves in front of me would consider me to be a paragon of forbearance and patience with the foibles of my fellow human beings here on this earth.  It is probably for that reason that I do not tend to preach to others about subjects where I have no particular virtue myself.  Those occasions where I might show unusual grace under considerable pressure are a far more eloquent testimony of such forbearance as I possess than any amount of my own preaching on the subject can give.

Be that as it may, I was led to ponder about the sort of virtues that are best practiced not through word but by deed.  What aspects of our own conduct provide the most eloquent testimony of our character to others?  I do not speak mainly for myself, but rather for others.  Although like many intellectually inclined people I am often a space cadet of sorts lost in my own thoughts, I try to be present for those around me.  I often enjoy observing what is going on around me, seeing the sort of interactions people have and looking at what may be observed about the moods and attitudes of people by virtue of their expressions and postures.  I ponder about what makes unhappy children unhappy and why it is that some people seem not to be very responsive to communication about what is proper and what is not proper in certain places.  I wonder the extent to which my own verbosity and exuberance clears space where people simply do not want to be around listening to whatever I am talking about at considerable value, and how this reputation for talking rather loudly can be juxtaposed with those moments where I am considerably more stealthy simply by being quiet and not on the hunt for interactions with others at all.  What virtues do we see in others who are not aware that they are sending us a message at all by their behavior?

One of the more difficult aspects of our communication with others is that some messages are best sent when we are not aware that we are sending them.  Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we see a normally half-feral child of our acquaintance doing something particularly thoughtful and kind for someone else.  It matters a great deal whether that good deed is being done out of their own awareness of someone’s situation and is kind because of the needs of that situation, or whether they are aware that they have an audience and are deliberately seeking good attention.  In the first case, we are likely to judge that said half-feral child does have a great deal of kindness inside and that the frequently feral aspects of one’s existence are likely to be rough edges that will be smoothed down a bit by growing emotional maturity and the development of self-awareness and self-discipline.  On the other hand, in the second case we will likely be left with the impression that said child knew how to behave properly but did not have the self-command to behave properly on a regular basis, and we will not be as charitable about their more usual conduct.  Those of us who are no longer particularly young may note that other people are likely to view us in the same light.  They may have pleasure in catching us unawares, so to speak, and enjoying our kindness and good nature in the moment but are less likely to ascribe great morality to our efforts at public performance.  And we ought to be aware that any such public speaking as we endeavor will be viewed as public performance, which leads to a certain discount on our achievements in such situations.

Indeed, those of us who live public lives are often aware of the great gulf that may exist between the appreciation we have as as public figures and the way people think of us as people.  Indeed, I tend to think that there is a great deal of frustration sometimes about the wide gulf that exists between the sagacity we show in our public persona and the lack of insight we may have in our personal dealings with others.  There are some people whose speaking or writing we may greatly appreciate without any desire to know them or be close to them as people.  There are others who we may appreciate very much for their kindness of heart or their gentleness of spirit but who simply lack the talents to talk about the virtues they so abundantly practice.  There are others who may be both good people and great at public proclamation, and those who we may appreciate in neither public nor private, which is perhaps the saddest situation of all, since we may be forgiving where fault can be found in one area if someone’s virtues in another area are sufficiently conspicuous.  After all, there are only a few people who are fortunate enough to be able to give public proclamation about our beliefs and practices, but every life, if it is lived well enough, can be an eloquent sermon that can inspire others to live better lives for themselves.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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