I was thinking recently that I’ve never taken stock of which virtues I believe are the most important ones. There are, after all, a lot of virtues out there, as a quick search shows. I especially like the descriptions in Wikipedia’s “Seven virtues”.
But for now, here are five that have been important to me at some time: courage, patience, persistence, honesty, and kindness.
These five have in common one characteristic that surprised me. They are virtues for difficult times. They are actions that are advantageous in circumstances when it would be all too easy—and less effective—to be fearful, impatient, discouraged, false, or nasty or indifferent. I wondered, are virtues in general things that you need during hard times? Are they simply unnecessary in easy times? Do virtues depend on adversity?
This line of thinking alarmed me. Aren’t there virtues for easy times? There’s generosity, perhaps, which usually assumes good times at least for the donor. Appreciation? Thankfulness? Gratitude over the Thanksgiving bounty? Well, yes, better to be appreciative than ungrateful or spoiled. But these virtues seem to be very easy to do or think or feel. Hardly worthy of the name “virtue.” It’s not a big deal to be thankful in good times compared to being persistent in tough times.
Perhaps more specifically than adversity, these five virtues connote a setting that is basic, essential, or even physical. It takes physical courage to face a storm at sea, patience to wait for a game animal to pass by, persistence to climb a mountain. Honesty is primitive not in a physical but in a social way: it’s the core of our social relationships and perceptions of truthfulness or deceptiveness. Kindness too speaks to a basic element of social harmony.
Because the virtues touch on such human fundamentals, I see them now as a kind of screen beyond which we can glimpse the struggles of our ancestors over millions of years. Over the centuries, the virtues have been a shifting set of labels—badges of sorts, quickly recognized, widely respected—for the behaviors that have worked well if not perfectly over the long history of community. They are the community’s protocol for preferred survival strategies.
But what about the uncomfortable possibility that for those of us fortunate enough to be healthy, secure, and cheerful, life may be too easy to require us to summon up virtues? Perhaps that scenario is simply never the case; perhaps life is never that easy. Perhaps the virtues have just moved indoors, become domesticated, as civilization has gone modern. Even in suburbia, after all, it remains challenging to call up the honesty and courage to tell a supervisor something that s/he doesn’t want to hear, or to be patient and persistent with cranky children, or to be kind to an unpleasant neighbor or coworker. The virtues still do get us through the difficult conversations. We might not classify them as “Virtues” anymore, though; we’re more likely to call them “coping skills.” They do lose their grandeur when life is more comfortable.