The Downside to Virtues

This week, I am exploring various aspects of how language can fail us.


Virtues are to be celebrated, right? Love, loyalty, cheerfulness, focus, determination, commitment—all qualities that are rightly hailed and pointed to as solid behaviors and attitudes we should practice in our daily lives. Except when they’re not.


The moderate approach Julia Child so famously championed is equally applicable to these qualities. Anything that has the power to help and to heal also holds the power to harm. Focus can get warped into unyielding determination. Love can morph from supportive and gentle to blind and fanatical. Generosity can mutate into a distorted form of currying favor or holding power over someone. Employed as a shield against reality, cheerfulness has its drawbacks. Loyalty, well, loyalty can lead to the sacrifice of good people at the altar of a belief system or relationship that no longer fulfills its original promise.


Virtues, like anything else, get defined by the person holding them. While, at first glance, you & I may agree on what loyalty means and how it is demonstrated, generally speaking if you examine specific dilemmas, we are likely to diverge on its definition and how it is shown. Some people (unconsciously) hold strictly narcissistic definitions of such terms–loyalty means you are loyal to me and not vice versa—whereas others may believe that loyalty means fealty to a larger, archetypal definition that may not always serve the immediate interests of one individual or group.


Ok, so we have different ideas of what things mean, that’s par for the course, right? Well, yes, but it also serves to demonstrate how we can box ourselves in. Say, for instance, a person believes that determination is what has served them well in the past, so they continue to rely on this quality in their home and professional lives. If they carry this too far, such resolve morphs into something poisonous that its proponent doesn’t anticipate or register. It can trigger a type of blind willfulness that is the source of far more harm than if the person had simply eased back on their reliance of this quality. What served us so well is one instance may harm us in another.


The reason this is so confusing is that, by nature, humans are pattern seekers. We learn by identifying precedents and then behave accordingly. So, it’s natural to deem an approach that served us well in the past will continue to do so. Figuring our way through this gets even trickier when the circumstances change only slightly. For instance, when I was at the office, my focus and obsessiveness helped me accomplish a mountain of work when we were particularly short staffed. But when we got some help, I continued this behavior despite the fact that there were more people I needed to communicate with—I was no longer a one man operation, so what helped me through a particular pinch was not useful as the dynamics changed.


Mine is an obvious example compared to many that you may be facing. For instance, when dealing with a longstanding relationship which is now undergoing duress as you or your partner evolve, you may decide how to behave based on your definition of loyalty. But to what are you loyal? The person? The relationship? Yourself? Your assets? What exactly is it you’re loyal to? Does it make sense to be loyal to a person or relationship the nature of which has changed irrevocably? It’s not that we shouldn’t continue to champion our commitments, but I urge you to do so thoughtfully. You need to know what it is you’re doing! It’s way too tempting to behave in a rote manner, applauding ourselves for our stalwart virtue.


To pull the camera back in a slightly less threatening way, can you think of someone who is unfailingly cheery to the extent that they are checked out from real world consequences? “Oh, it’ll all work out,” they trill. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful, important quality to be cheerful—far better than the opposite—but everything in moderation. I say all this because virtues can be a slippery slope when we get too deeply committed into championing them. Think about a belief you hold dear and that you work at integrating into your daily life—is there an instance when, perhaps, it didn’t serve you as well as you hoped? The trap of black and white thinking lays in unexpected places.


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