There are many ways to talk about virtues. Classically they have been referred to as habits that dispose us toward goodness. Others have referred to them as the “Golden Mean” and still others, “The Golden Rule;” “Do unto others what you would do to yourself.”
Recently, though, I have been reflecting on how the virtuous life is the capacity to communicate well; to create dialogue.
Everything we do has meaning, communicates something. What I wear, say, do, or don’t do says something to the people around me. Every act of communication involves a relationship between the person speaking and the individuals to whom I am speaking. I may have something very important to say; but unless I show deference to the greater community they will never receive it; it will get lost in translation.
Take for example the virtue of modesty. What we wear communicates something. What it communicates is determined by the culture, but it always communicates something. By immodesty I use the powerful allure of sex to manipulate and by modesty I respect the vulnerability of others.
Another good example is bad language. Bad language is an immature way of expressing our emotions, thoughts, and feelings. It reflects the fact that we haven’t learned how to communicate our thoughts with respect to others.
By prudence I judge when and how to express myself; by humility I always express myself from a place of truth; in Charity give ourselves, express ourselves; by patience we have perseverance in expressing our message without
being distracted by frustration; and the list could go on.
The opposite of communicating in a virtuous way is manipulation. The temptation in our life is always to use manipulation: power, money, coercion, sex, violence, force, fear, etc. . . . to get what I want. The message is always; “this is what gets results; this is the only way to get what we need.” Necessities; always necessities; you are just a slave of impulses and needs, stop trying to be something more. The only truth is power and dependency.
Learning to communicate well is a very fine art; and even the best of us can wonder away from it. We often see this in adolescents who are still learning how to express themselves. They may tattoo their whole face, dress immodestly, use bad words, act out in strange ways. They want to “express themselves,” “be themselves,” “have no limits.” The immaturity in this is that, while they are making a lot of noise and getting a lot of attention, they are not communicating their message very well. A man who shows up at a business interview with nose piercings and a mohawk has put barriers between himself and the greater community; he will probably make his employer uncomfortable. This is because in order to communicate well we have to be aware and show deference to how others will receive our actions, how it will be interpreted. Antisocial activity is based on a false notion that culture and community is the enemy of my individualism; that in order to “be myself,” I must be contrary to them. This puts us at war with ourselves and in perpetual frustration because there is never a space where there is an “us without them.”
Therefore, Christian life is about becoming a master of communicating well. Like mastering the art of walking, we are called to move beyond the unbalanced mobility of a toddler to the exceptional art of an acrobat on a tight rope. In our promise to “Reject sin,” “and all its empty promises,” Christians promise to strive always for the heights of virtue; never to be satisfied with just “getting by.”
It is always a path of discernment. When to speak boldly, when to be quiet, when to act in defense, when to turn the other cheek? Even the best of Christians can error in this regard out of good intentions. Constantly we are called back to the Gospel and to an examination of conscience in our continual growth to be better channels of the message of God’s love.
In the art communicating well there are many things to keep in mind. Here are some to consider.
“Know yourself.” Know your fears, know your biases, know your habits. To be humble is to live in the truth; to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and about others. To acknowledge both our strengths and our weaknesses; to move away from fear of our true self. Humility is not about belittling ourselves or never raising our voice but about realizing that we do have a voice and that this voice still has value even if it is not heard. As we continue to grow in our self-knowledge we also notice that there are many motives for our actions; some that are lofty and some that are base. Humility helps us to accept this reality, reaffirming our desire to act out of sincere motives and ask forgiveness for our less than perfect motives.
Create space for the other. St. Francis is said to have gone out and preached to the birds; which has always been a striking example for me of what it takes to be a nonthreatening presence. Anyone who has ever tried to get a bird to eat out of their hand knows the degree of silence, gentleness, and patience that is required. The Christian needs a heightened capacity to empathize, listen, share, and reflect back to the other. It means they must grow in there comfort with rejection; their capacity to forgive, to welcome back, to respect the sanctuary of the conscience. It is a call to be experts at hospitality.
No one desires evil. It is impossible for anyone to desire evil. Evil is disorder, a disordering of goods, a break in the proper ordering of values. For example, a thief desires money (and with it security, prosperity, and the power that comes with it). These are very noble goods, things that I would want the thief to have; but the thief obtained these goods without regarding the value of human life when he killed the store clerk. In the same way; in any disagreement both sides are seeking to safe guard certain values, goods. A person who is pro-choice is seeking to safe guard the value of a woman’s autonomy, independence, freedom, well-being, etc. These are beautiful values, ones that I am bound in conscience not only to protect but also to be an advocate for. The problem is not in what is desired but the solution that is proposed; which do not properly respect the life of the unborn child. Seen in this way, a mature dialogue is about discoursing about the proper hierarchy of values and that none of the values can be discarded without everything tumbling down. Each side must ask each other, “What keeps you up at night?” “What are you passionate about?” “What are your fears, your worries?” “What are legitimate ways of safe guarding all of these beautiful realities?”
The Socratic method. Socrates, the ancient Greek Philosopher, spoke of himself as a “midwife,” that is, his purpose was to aid the inquirer in bringing forth a conclusion. He did this by asking questions of the other so that together they could “give birth” to the ideal. Socrates’ method is a hard art to master, requiring discipline and maturity among the participants. However, it can be another tool in creating a non-threatening space.
A spirit of self-denial and discipline; self-control. In order to have a mature dialogue both parties must cultivate basic human virtues such as order, discipline, good manners, generosity, honesty, education, detachment from material things, etc. . . Without these things everything turns into a power struggle.
The use of force. In our imperfect world the use of force in legitimate defense of something valuable is sometimes necessary, but its use marks a failure of the whole human community. That somehow along the way virtue failed. Here I am not only speaking about force of arms, but also the force of law, the force of discipline, anything that is simply given as an imposition. Too many times Christians have easily adopted the story of Jesus turning over the tax collectors tables as a call to “stand up for what is right;” but have easily forgotten the warning “Whoever uses the sword dies by the sword,” and the exhortation, “turn the other cheek.” Society needs just laws, children need discipline, we need coaches who will get in our face every once in while so that we can discover our true potential; but such things can become a crutch for authentic Christian witness. We can’t simply impose on people Christian virtue without an authentic witness of its beauty; we can’t simply rely on the force of law to do our work. Anything simply built on “because I said so” will not last.