The last week has left me reflecting a lot on virtue: what does it look like when it shows up? I’m trying not to sink down into pondering the ugly, murky crater that is virtue’s absence. Spending too much time staring at a trainwreck of bad behaviour has never done my soul any favours: whether I feel superiority or despair, it’s the opposite of edifying. “Well THAT person has made awful choices” doesn’t exactly make me jump up and sparkle with good energy. “The world is filled with horrible people doing horrible things, hope has left the building”, makes me want to lie down and not get up.
Possibly it’s a lot more worthwhile to spend energy reflecting on the good, on what’s beautiful and righteous and dignified. I don’t mean empty Pollyanna daydreams, either (they annoy me in a similarly lie-down-forever kind of way). I mean the kind of right-doing that makes me want to get up and fight for the same cause.
And it must be said: virtue is attractive. A person who goes about doing quiet acts of kindness, who is reliably fair and just in their actions, who has patience and mercy for others but doesn’t put up with oppressive nonsense either…don’t you just want to be near that person? Doesn’t that person have a way of being that makes others feel safe, and recognized, and at home?
There’s a quality of the heart at work here, and it’s worth describing. What’s driving all that goodness? Is it fear? Not so good. You can do the “right thing” with a heart full of fear, or with a pinched, grasping wish to lay your mitts on some kind of prize. It’s not quite so attractive! The lightness and love that emanate from a true do-gooder create a glow you want to bask in.
So what does it feel like, from the inside? Doing good feels a lot like creativity, or mastery. It’s being in “flow”. You feel like you’re channelling something, and it feels nice. It’s not like that gears-grinding, laboured feeling of trying to conjure up a thing you have no energy for. It’s the breezy, relaxed feeling of being highly productive, without having to work that hard. What’s not to love?
Now, can you practice doing good things and hope to one day gain that open-hearted quality, that feeling of flow? I think, why not? “Fake it til you make it” is a cliché for a reason. Aristotle or Aquinas would call it “habituation in virtue”, but to each their own. Even if you start out doing good with a hollow, cobweb-filled heart, the love, recognition and good energy that will be reflected back at you might fill your heart right up.
The greatest motivator of goodness is love, and love breeds more love. So if you’re like me, and you see a world of darkness out there right now: why not make some extra deposits in the transformation bank? Knowing that love is the great motivator, get out there and start filling up hearts.