This morning when I was on my walk, I was listening to On Being and Krista Tippet brought up a really cool idea that I couldn’t stop thinking about (podcasts often do this to me!) It was actually just a tiny gem in a much bigger conversation, but it kept going around and around my head because it’s something I think about a lot as I try to make sense of the internet, the world and my place in both. (And also the things that rub me up the wrong way!)
She raised the idea of the language of character and the language of virtue and she wondered if people of a certain age reject virtue over character.
This kind of summed up something that I have been wondering about too.
Virtue: behaviour showing high moral standards.
“paragons of virtue”
synonyms: goodness, virtuousness, righteousness, morality, ethicalness, uprightness, upstandingness, integrity, dignity, rectitude, honesty, honourableness, honourability, honour, incorruptibility, probity, propriety, decency, respectability, nobility, nobility of soul/spirit, nobleness, worthiness, worth, good, trustworthiness, meritoriousness, irreproachableness, blamelessness, purity, pureness, lack of corruption, merit
Character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
“running away was not in keeping with her character”
synonyms: personality, nature, disposition, temperament, temper, mentality, turn of mind, psychology, psyche, constitution, make-up, make, stamp, mould, cast
I think as I get older, something roughly summed up by the words ‘true character’ are what I’m going for as a person. And what I see a lot of out there in the world are ‘virtuous intentions’.
True character – to me – is defined by being able to do/be what/who you truly want to be at any moment, regardless of outside expectations. It doesn’t mean you’re an ahole, but it does mean that you’re not always motivated by morals or ethics and that you’re sitting in your own skin.
Virtuous intention – to me – is defined by striving to be some kind of higher, better or best self – or the self you think you should be – a lot of the time. It’s about perceived forward motion.
Sometimes the two criss-cross, but generally you’re on one path or the other – although you might switch paths as your resolve or goals or influences switch.
Instagram is flooded with visual displays of intended virtue. People working hard to be their best selves and pulling in all kinds of life facets that in the past may never have been the stomping ground of virtue. Virtuous types are often trying to eat, move, be, think, give, speak, dress, shop, do in their best self ways according to best-self best practice. Facebook is a bit the same.
Sometimes this is inspiring and makes us want to follow suit. Other times it’s a bit too much. Or we might think it’s all a bit inauthentic or exhausting or cult-ish. It’s all a bit confusing.
True character, on the other hand, is not so easily visually displayed, is less likely to have its own hashtag and lovingly embraces who we really are beneath the surface (regardless of whether we have rich girl hair or the prettiest lunchbox in the universe or rad before/after shots.) It doesn’t have its own out-of-the-box visual language like virtue does, but when we see it, we know it! (Online, it’s probably more likely to be found on quippy Twitter or more confessional or long-form blogs.)
So. Do we really need to be our best self all the time?
Is this seemingly ubiquitous, virtuous, visual focus really the way forward?
I admit I used to try to do the best self thing A LOT. Now I’m not so sure it’s the right path for me. There’s a prescriptive, judge-y base-line that best-self virtue can often spring from. It’s a weird paradox that I don’t want to be part of.
Yes – it’s a great idea to learn, do, improve and grow. But I think you need to learn, do, improve, grow, collide, screw-up, snort and bumble into who you really are.
That means you don’t have to be ace all the time.
You really don’t.
There’s a strength in working out your own fragilities and perceived failings – AND you don’t always have to fix those things. Sometimes accepting the wonky bits is the best thing you can do – and there’s actually a kind of peace that comes from doing that. A shift. A kind of auto-growth, if you will.
Less of who you want to be/think you should be. More of who you are. Yes.
I think we’re often raised to be achievers and pleasers, to live pre-emptively (so we’re seen as GOOD people), avoid conflict and keep the peace. That’s where this weird and mentally exhausting addiction to virtuous intention comes in.
BUT if we accepted ourselves a little more, judged others a little less and embraced people’s – including our own – complexities and inconsistencies, then maybe true character could have more time to shine?
Maybe we’d be more inclined to take chances, have fun, bumble through, risk it, celebrate life, goof off, mess up, triumph, trust ourselves, feel it?
Maybe instead of being the external or internally perceived GOOD or INSPIRING or #BLESSED… we could all just be OKAY for a little while! Yay?!
What do you think?!
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
If you want to think/hear more about these ideas and others that surround them:
More things I’ve written about stuff: