Moving to Virtue
In the early 1990’s, a beautiful, strong-willed young girl dreamt of making a career out of her love for singing and performance. She found a few other young girls with similar visions, talents and will, and—after failing a few times—struck a deal with Columbia Records, and Destiny’s Child was born. Today, Beyoncé Knowles reigns as one of the most popular artists worldwide. In 2013 with her vocal performance platform, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Just a few decades before Beyoncé’s rise to fame, a middle-aged nun in India heard a voice that asked her to quench the thirst of others. This nun knew the only way to quench the thirst of Calcutta’s poor was to go be with them, giving up everything she owned except for a few of pieces of clothing. A later Nobel Peace Prize laureate and likely to-be-named Catholic “Saint”, Mother Teresa went to help those who would also help her become what she was called to be: poor.
A powerful pop diva contrasted with a prayerful nun demonstrates the power of virtue for the good of personal and corporate success. And that is virtue: moral excellence for the good of oneself and of all.
All About Distinction
Character is about distinction—being so excellent that you literally impress or imprint upon others the goodness that your life embodies. It is this power of living virtuously that sets someone apart from others. And it is obvious to those who encounter an excellent human being or even just read sketches of them written in articles in Bright Ideas.
In the previous two articles, we talked about the inspiring character of Nelson Mandela and Pier Giorgio Frassati, yet no one needs a lesson in evaluating what is positive or negative character. Like the excellence of Beyoncé’s stardom and Mother Teresa’s holiness, virtue is obvious.
Maybe there’s reason.
Drawing Us In
Virtue incarnate is life-alteringly magnetic. It stands out against corruption, suffering and evil we all encounter, and we are drawn toward the excellent lives of others. By simply seeing or hearing of another doing it, becoming virtuous, we actually make changes in our lives to follow suit.
Others help make justice, faith, creativity, and other virtues, well… real. It’s as if they reached out into an other-worldly realm and, as if breathing in something divine, showed us how to do it. Others living out virtue both reminds and compels us to take that seemingly-ethereal truth and make it real ourselves. If they could, why shouldn’t I? People of legendary character literally put flesh on a truth that we cannot see with our own fleshy eyes. And we are drawn to it.
Children hang posters of their favorite athletes and consume the products they endorse. When young FFA members see state officers move into another room or listen to a particular song, don’t they often follow? Especially-driven members will even find out what officers did to get elected and try walking the same paths. Maybe you did, too.
Using What We’ve Been Given
In his TED Talk, “The surprising science of happiness,” Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert explains how only human beings have the ability to simulate outcomes in our brains and therefore choose what will make us happy. Ancient philosophers came to the same conclusions even without the technology of today. So, let’s use these natural powers!
Unlike any other being in all of creation, human beings have reason and personal agency. We have these abilities so we can choose to do and become good. We can even choose to do something painful for the sake of something heroic: something no other creature can consciously choose! The few that do—like praying mantises that die in the process of reproduction—are wired to live this way. We are free to choose it.
Like athletes choosing to lift with already-sore muscles or tired state officers choosing to run through conference sessions one more time before bed, we can choose to make personal sacrifice for the sake our or another’s good.
Like Begets Like
If I want to become courageous, I won’t get there by shying away from risk. Beyoncé wasn’t going to become a better singer and performer singing alone at family events, and the saintly Mother Teresa would have found it quite difficult to quench the thirst of poverty without moving into the slums. When it comes to living virtuously, nothing is more certain than like begets like.
We gain hope by being hopeful. We learn to run and climb by running and climbing. Like begets like. Harvard will only continue to attract the best and brightest if it has the best and brightest. And the tallest of trees will soon lose limbs and eventually be blown down when the rest of the forest is cleared around them.
So, with what or whom do you surround yourself? Where do you choose to freely and reasonably place your wealth, time, love, energy? What posters are on your walls? And, where do you need to go—to a singing trio, a soccer team, or slums—to become as virtuous as you know you can be?
Article originally published for the National FFA Organization's Bright Ideas magazine, January 2014