Sunday, October 07, 2007

Why live in the world when you can live in your head?

In The Happiness Hypothesis, which I previously wrote about here, he has a whole chapter on Virtue, and how in the West, we've gotten away from teaching our children to be Virtuous in favor of being Moral. The difference being that teaching kids to be "moral" focuses on dilemmas and quandaries, whereas teaching kids to be "virtuous" focuses on actual character. As the author says, "where the ancients saw virtue and character at work in everything a person does, our modern conception confines morality to a set of situations that arise for each person a few times in any given week: tradeoffs between self-interest and the interest of others." We define morality by how often (and how much) one gives to charity, helps others, does nice things, and generally isn't a total bastard.

The author cites Ben Franklin, who apparently wrote books about virtue, in his own metaphor for virtue: it is like a garden of "excellences" that a person cultivates to be more effective and appealing to others. In other words, are you willing to put in the work now (planting, sowing, tilling, etc) toward your own well-being later on (harvesting, reaping)? Becoming virtuous, like most other things worth doing or being, takes work and dedication, and growth. One isn't born virtuous, one must become virtuous. (There's a whole other chapter on the growth capacity of suffering, and whether emotional suffering and despair is actually necessary for adequate and complete spiritual growth, or if that growth is possible without it. In other words, can you become enlightened without first being engulfed in darkness?)

I'd honestly never considered the idea of virtue as not particularly being about morality before, and how the two can be such separate notions. It got me thinking, though, when the author lists what two other researchers have uncovered what they believe are the 6 top Character Strengths, each with its own bullet points, but I'll just hit the high-level virtues:


(You can test your own character strengths at Authentic Happiness, which I did here, back in January.)

One "virtue" that I personally feel they've left out (and the authors invite people to argue with them; it's by no means considered a definitive list) is thoughtfulness. That seems to me a rarity these days. Not among people I know of course (natch), but it's interesting how it seems people can be mostly very kind and good-hearted but just also completely wrapped up in their own head all the time, rarely considering the consequences of their actions on the people around them. Simple courtesies that seem to be always missing.

I guess I was just raised in a hyper-vigilant household about being thoughtful. Both of my parents went to extreme lengths to make sure that as I was growing up, I always considered every action I took and how it would affect the people around me. I was frequently shamed into empathy and deliberate thoughtfulness when I had hurt someone, or had even been capable of hurting someone, through something that I did. Or whenever I had simply inconvenienced someone, or been demanding, or careless, or whatever. It was rarely not pointed out to me. (And lest anyone recoil at the "shaming" of children, there's nothing wrong with teaching children to feel ashamed of shameful actions; imagine a world where adults never felt shame for anything!)

To illustrate just how far my parents took this, once, when I was in high school, my mother caught a friend and me having sex one night (and this friend, yes, was a boy). She didn't confront me that night, but the next morning she did, and when I flat-out lied and told her I wasn't gay (I wasn't even ready to admit it to myself, much less both of my parents in an interrogation), that I was "experimenting," but that I thought my friend was gay, she said, "Well how do you think that makes him feel? Do you think he'll feel good about having his emotions used like that?" (In an especially ironic twist, this "friend" later became my boyfriend for years, but then later also became straight, while I continued being as queer as a $3 bill.)

Thus, an example of where shaming is necessary to teach a lesson about being thoughtful. Maybe that's a dumb example, but I never forgot that; it made a big impression on me. Thoughtfulness goes beyond being merely polite. It's a deliberate mindset. It's just confounding to me that so many people lack it.

No comments: