Tag Archives: virtue

What is courage?

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately (previous post about courage). Often we define courage as feeling the fear but acting anyway. What troubles me about this approach is that it defines courage as something that only exists in opposition to something else.

One of the things I like about virtues is the idea of cultivating them, but if courage only exists in relation to fear, then you can only cultivate it by having things you are afraid of. You can only measure it in terms of that – so the person who develops courage so far that they overcome fear doesn’t really count as courageous any more. 

I’m interested in the idea of courage as an innate quality, not a reaction. It struck me that this would require the courage to be for something, rather than coming up in opposition to fearful experiences. What things are we invested in such that the idea of them gives us courage? It takes courage to act, to make changes, to stand up for things. It’s perhaps not so much about overcoming fear as overcoming apathy and disbelief. The courage of your convictions is a rejection of the idea that you can’t make a difference, or that the struggle itself is futile. It can take courage to try and to strive – not because the action is fearful, but because it takes a certain kind of boldness to assert meaning in this way in face of an often uncaring universe.

Thanks to some helpful facebook prompts, I’ve been thinking about lions and oak trees in relation to courage. Neither of these really suggests overcoming fear to me. They do however suggest ways of standing in your own power, with a kind of poise and awareness that makes action possible. 

I’m considering the idea that fear isn’t the opposite of courage – often fear and courage exist alongside each other. Apathy and defeatedness are the opposites of courage. It is apathy and a feeling of defeat and futility that stops people from acting – fear is often a spur to acting and creates necessity. Courage is the quality that keeps a person moving when it seems like all is lost, or the problem is too big to take on. Thus whether or not you are afraid may not be the best measure of whether or not you are courageous.


Choosing who to be

In my late teens, I set about deliberately constructing a set of values to live by, and some aspirations about the sort of person I wanted to be. My twenties brought me a lot of challenges. I was living with someone who went to some effort to make me feel awful, useless and miserable. The things I had tried to do were weaponised against me. He’d tell me, for example, that I looked down on everyone else and this was evidenced by my holding myself to higher standards than other people. How do you go about trying to be the best person you can be in face of someone who treats that like arrogance and superiority?

When I first started talking to Tom online, he offered me a reflection of myself that was wildly different from the feedback I was otherwise living with. I felt like a shabby, unacceptable sort of entity. At the same time I desperately wanted not to let him down. I wanted to be the person he thought I was. I think that did a lot to hold me together and to give me motives for doing my best.

I’ve thought for a long time that your most authentic self is the person you aspire to be, and work to become. That’s not easy to do when there’s someone in the mix who sees you as your worst possible self, attributes terrible motives to your every action and reduces any good you try and do to ’virtue signalling’. Based on what I see online, there are some people who cannot imagine any other person having genuinely good or kind motives. When you start from that belief, anything another person does that seems nice must in truth be really nasty, manipulative, part of some plot or scheme that is even worse than the honest misanthropy they themselves are in to.

There are qualities I try to develop in myself. I want to understand people, because for me that’s the best basis I have for compassion. I want to be kind, without that enabling other people to be unkind. I try to be patient, but I do struggle with that. I try to notice how my own assumptions colour my interpretations of events. I don ‘t really mind whether anyone else notices me doing these things – I’m not in it for the applause, it’s simply about how I want to be in the world and what I want informing my choices and actions. I don’t always get this stuff right, but I’m also trying to learn how to be kinder to myself when I mess up.

There are questions I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. Could I have been kinder? Could I have been more forgiving, or more generous? I know I’ve been dealing with things where my failure to understand the other person’s perspective really hasn’t been helping, but I don’t have a lot of information to go on. How much slack should I cut myself for the way panic can influence my responses? Am I allowing the other person in this situation the same kind of understanding if this is because they are panicking? Do I have unreasonable double standards?

What I’ve learned is this: I have no hope of being perfect for anyone all the time. What I can choose to be is as fair and as careful as I’m capable of. I can choose to try. I can act on my best understanding of what kind and reasonable look like in a given situation. I am allowed to protect myself if I’m overwhelmed or not able to cope. I need to be ok with being fallible, because I’m human and I make mistakes. I need to be ok with not always being good enough by other people’s standards, especially when what’s wanted of me hasn’t been made clear. How I’m doing in terms of being who I want to be is not something other people can measure for me, and I should not allow anyone to tell me whether I am good enough in that regard.


How to change things

Knocking people down is easy. Knocking people down to make yourself look good is really easy, and a low effort ego-boost if you aren’t careful. So, please hear me as tongue in cheek as I mention how those other people are doing it wrong, blogging their complaints about the greed and selfishness of others while I have the moral high ground over here talking about the importance of bigging people up.

Anger and frustration are entirely natural emotional responses. There’s certainly plenty out there to get angry with, and nothing wrong with feeling it. No emotion is wrong. But, we then get a lot of choices around what we do in response to any given emotion. Knocking someone else down can feel like power. It can feel like taking a significant, meaningful action. However, politics in recent years has demonstrated that often when you try to knock people down, they’re more likely to dig in with their position. Feeling humiliated and got-at doesn’t tend to bring out the best in people.

There are a lot of stories out there in which evil characters do evil things because they are evil. It’s one of the most unhelpful stories we habitually tell each other. People do things for reasons, and at the time they tend to think their reasons are good ones, or justified, or necessary. When people seem to be acting badly, it’s worth stepping back and asking what might be underpinning that. Often the roots can be found in fear – we live in insecure societies with most people in debt and a paycheck or two from utter disaster. Individual coping mechanisms for this can often add to the problems as well as distracting from them. Scared people seldom make good choices.

As social creatures, humans are motivated by the approval of others. When this goes wrong, it can drive a person deeper into the embrace of a toxic relationship, or for that matter, a toxic community. If everyone else is calling you stupid, you’re going to cling that bit harder to the people who tell you that you’re very clever. Cults and conspiracy theories alike thrive on this.

Knocking people down doesn’t reliably persuade them that you are right. But it does fuel the kind of anxiety that pushes people towards the things that offer them apparent uplift. A lot of populist politics depend on this. It doesn’t help that money, and the display of money through rampant consumerism is one of the few routes most people are offered towards being socially respected. It’s a precarious path, and it doesn’t get the majority where they want to be so it feeds resentment and dissatisfaction as well.

If we want to make real change – socially or environmentally – we have to persuade people to engage. People who feel belittled by a minority aren’t going to step away from a culture that promises to reward them for being selfish. It is essential to lift and inspire people rather than just criticising them. We’re all flawed, we all have things we do badly and competitive virtue signalling isn’t reliably virtuous. When it comes to making change in the world, I feel strongly that kindness and compassion are the key virtues to cultivate. Even if you do that primarily to try and impress people with your performance, it still works. If everyone is trying to perform kindness, we can get some good things done.

Kindness and compassion do not require us to be uncritical, but presentation can make a lot of odds. It’s possible to dismantle ideas without attacking people, and I think it gets more done to offer people ways of feeling better about themselves.


What is courage?

Most often, courage and bravery are both defined in terms of overcoming fear. Apparently it isn’t courage if you weren’t afraid in the first place. It may be heroic idiocy, or naivety, impulsiveness or not thinking it through. I feel like we’re missing something here. I feel like reducing courage to what we do in the face of fear is less than helpful and my totally unsubstantiated personal gnosis is that this is not what ideas of courage meant to our Celtic ancestors. Also, they will have had a totally different language for all of this.

What if fear isn’t the most important thing? What if you can look at the dangers, weight them sensibly, but also not be overwhelmed by them. What if the dangers don’t tend to seem like the most important factors? What if courage, as a quality and as a virtue could have something joyful about it? An enthusiastic, life embracing, challenge meeting sort of feeling that leads a person to live life boldly, bring the best of what they have and do things as well as is possible. What if courage is the virtue of being really invested in how you do something and not overly focused on what you think the outcome will be? On the grounds that living well, with honour and authenticity will always be the right direction to go in, even if it doesn’t seem expedient right now.

Courage, thought about this way becomes the opposite of apathy. The odds don’t matter so much, the risks don’t matter so much, the real question is how much passionate integrity and wholeheartedness you can bring. It becomes a state of being, not a reaction to scary stuff.

At the moment, this is a largely aspirational line of thought for me. I’ve done a lot of trying to be brave in face of things that terrify me. It’s exhausting, and I don’t much like how it feels. I want to shift my relationship with the rest of reality, and I want to re-imagine myself and these are some of the terms on which I’m doing that at the moment.


What is compassion?

Compassion, as a spiritual virtue, is something I’ve only ever aspired to, and not with much hope of being able to achieve it. As a spiritual concept, it comes up in many religions – Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thinking explores compassion as something to practice, while Judaism, Christianity and Islam tend to see it as the territory of God. Either way, it’s not easy work.

Compassion comes from the person feeling it. There are no transactions here, no earning the right to be treated compassionately. To be truly compassionate is not to judge. I tend to judge. It means what I do is better framed as kindness, or sympathy because it is partial and I know I cannot extend it to everyone. How you manifest your compassion may well depend on judgement, but the initial recognition of a fellow suffering human does not.

I would like to be able to see everyone as containing a sacred spark, as equally worthy, as all deserving love and compassion. I’ve thought about what kinds of qualities I would need to develop to move towards this state of being. It calls for a vast capacity to love and accept and to recognise our shared condition even in people who do the worst things. I feel very strongly that as soon as we’re talking about the limits of compassion, we aren’t actually talking about compassion any more.

As someone who isn’t compassionate, I am able and inclined to get angry about how I see this term used in some quarters. It is a popular word with people who wish to be seen as spiritual. Too easily, it becomes a demand for other people to appease them. Why are you not treating me with more compassion? It’s an easy knockback if, for example, you’ve just been called out for something. It tends to be people with privilege in the first place who feel entitled to demand compassion from others. It also tends to be people with privilege who practice compassion towards themselves – especially when someone has asked them to do something difficult, uncomfortable or otherwise unappealing to them. I can’t help you right now, I am practicing compassion towards myself.

Compassion towards self is such an attractive mask to slide over the face of total selfishness. It’s the mask that proclaims virtue while hiding the least attractive and least spiritual motives. These are people I usually fail to find compassion for.

I think compassion is something to aspire to. In the meantime, empathy is a good thing to try and develop. Sympathy can run too close to pity, but when we empathise we start to see how we could have ended up in the same place. How easy it is to fall through the gaps, or be led astray, or let the least helpful part of yourself grab the steering wheel. When we can see that we all have the scope to do both wonderful and terrible things, it is easier, I suspect, to cultivate compassion. Those times when we can’t do it will be able to teach us a lot about who and how we are, and what we fear in ourselves. It’s not people who have evolved beyond their worst impulses who may be best able to practice compassion. It may well be the people who have faced their own darkness so that they do not have to fear it in others. I’m not at all sure, but I think it’s worth pondering.


The contradictions inherent in virtue

Every virtue has the seed of its own destruction inside it. Taken too far, or taken the wrong way and things that should have been virtuous and brought good into the world become dysfunctional or damaging. The problems come when we get too focused on practicing the specific virtue and stop putting it in the context of a bigger picture.

Tolerance that tolerates intolerance sows the seeds of its own destruction. When you accept that all views deserve to be heard and all comers are due a place at the table, you empower those who will take power from others. Tolerance needs to be conditional on excluding the truly intolerant. When we’re so invested in our tolerance that we’ll tolerate anything and anyone, we enable Nazis, fascists and other haters.

Modesty and humbleness, and avoiding pride can in itself become a form of pride. These are particularly Christian virtues, and the way they seed their own destruction can often be best seen in those who claim Christianity as their faith. When people become enthusiastic participants in their own martyrdom, and keen to announce how humble, modest and good they are, it’s pride in a different hat. But it’s more problematic than simple, honest pride, because it’s also self deluding.

Being kind can become profoundly unkind when it supports people in doing harmful things. If we’re too kind to tell someone that what they do isn’t working. If we’re too kind to call out an abuser, question dodgy thinking or protest at inappropriate behaviour, we enable all those things. The kindness that lets someone carry on destroying their own life isn’t very kind at all.

Often the wider frame we need for navigating here, is honour. But even honour holds the seeds of its own destruction. If we focus on how to appear honourable and how to put ourselves forward as the best and most honourable people, we won’t always do what’s needed. Sometimes what’s needed is a lot more complicated than personal honour will allow. When the laws become toxic and the leaders are false, it ceases to be honourable to hold up laws or dutifully follow leaders. When the truth around you is evil, lying can become necessary. When the system is unfair, cheating can become essential.

At every turn, you can use the seed of destruction within a virtue to act badly while claiming the moral high ground. At every turn, you can use the knowledge that every virtue has its limitations to justify not even trying, or to protest that virtue itself is meaningless. It is a difficult thing to meaningfully practice virtue in a dishonourable age.


Fickleness, loyalty and virtue

Loyalty is generally seen as a virtue. In heroic cultures, loyalty to your leader is much prized – loyalty makes it to the list of nine Heathen virtues for this reason. It is key to cooperation, and is woven into marriage vows as well – we often pledge to love each other in sickness and in health, for better or worse – to be loyal regardless of adverse circumstances or better offers. To stick with someone, or something when the going gets tough, can take courage and determination as well as generosity. Loyalty is something to treasure.

However, like all ideas, it has its limits. Staying loyal to the person who has abused your loyalty stops looking like virtue and starts looking like self harm. If people are not loyal to us in return, it may be ill advised to remain faithful and devoted to them. Staying loyal to someone who has behaved dishonourably is also questionable. JK Rowling’s loyalty to Johnny Depp, for example, does not inspire confidence in her, and strikes me as a rather dishonourable choice. There can be no honour in loyally sticking up for the cheat, the abuser, or the exploiter.

Loyalty can get us stuck places to no one’s benefit. Sometimes you just need to come in, and do the things, and when the things are done, move on. Staying out of a sense of loyalty can keep something going that is no longer use or ornament. As Pagans we recognise that death and decay are part of the natural cycle. Everything has its seasons, its lifespan. To loyally cling on and not give up on something that needs to be allowed to die may feel like virtue, without having the consequences of virtue.

Truly virtuous behaviour, from a Pagan perspective, makes more good happen. It enables, it causes self and/or others to flourish. Virtue promotes health and wellbeing, and enables us to have good lives in all the sense of that word. Anything taken to excess won’t do that. Loyalty taken to excess becomes limiting and harmful.

We all need room to experiment and to change. What made sense for us at one life stage may stop making sense as we age. Our needs shift. Sometimes we all need the freedom to flit between projects, jobs, friends, lovers, belief systems, in order to figure out who we are and where we fit. Sometimes we need to be fickle, to change our minds, to pull away from what we once enthusiastically embraced. If loyalty must be absolute, and commitment must be unconditional and for always, we stifle ourselves.


Resting is a virtuous activity

Industrial cultures are quick to blame anyone who isn’t busy busy busy working and consuming. Our leaders and commentators treat laziness like a mortal sin. It’s lazy people letting the economy down, work harder! It is lazy people who don’t have jobs – magically overcome your illnesses and disadvantages and get useful right now! And so on and so forth. We all hear that all the time, and it is feeding a sense that we have to be busy to be good.

This is total rubbish and doesn’t stack up at all. It’s not those who don’t work who create the problems in the economy, but the whole structure and nature of capitalism. If we want to point fingers at the ‘workshy’ we’d be better focused on those who earn a great deal for doing very little. Our economy depends on us being persuaded to buy things we can’t afford and don’t need – that’s not a good strategy for anyone individually, or for everyone. Debt creates bubbles and bubbles inevitably burst and leave a mess. Blaming those who can’t find work is simply a distraction to stop us from questioning the system itself.

Exhausted people who work all the time won’t do anything revolutionary. They’re too tired. Exhausted people are less able to make good decisions because they don’t have the concentration, and are more easily persuaded to do anything that might give them brief peace and respite. It is worth noting that keeping your victim exhausted is the kind of thing domestic abusers do in order to keep abusing with impunity. I see a lot of parallels between how governments treat the people and how abusers treat victims.

Being well rested makes a person calmer. A calm person can’t be panicked into making a bad decision. A calm person can think things through more easily. The well rested person has better self esteem and is less likely to accept things that harm them. The exhausted person is more likely to feel worthless and be less able to resist exploitation as a consequence.

When you get all the rest you need, you aren’t getting signals from your body to tell you there’s a crisis going on. So you aren’t looking around for something to eat, drink or own that might ease the feeling of crisis. You aren’t trying to buy shortcuts, and won’t be ripped off by people selling you false economies.

The person who rests has the time to reflect, to keep things in perspective, to figure out how they are and what they want. The person who can rest can lead a considered life, self aware and with the knowledge to practice effective self care. Rest time is when we pause to make sense of things, when we can chew over what we’ve learned, and see what’s important and what isn’t. The person who can’t rest may find themselves flailing from one mess to another, with no idea how to stop or even what’s gone wrong.

Rest is a virtuous activity, because rest allows us the space to develop wisdom and insight. The person who is always busy can’t do that in the same way. Hard work is not itself a virtue, and may be at odds with virtue because too much of it destroys the scope for reflection and wisdom.


Who needs strong and stable?

‘Strong’ is one of those words that can have many meanings. It can of course be a good thing, especially when we’re talking about physical capabilities. The strength to endure, to survive, to continue – that can be good too. Although in some circumstances, if strength isn’t tempered with wisdom, it can become pigheaded stupidity. All too often I’m seeing the media use ‘strong’ to mean uncompromising, unwilling to negotiate, dictatorial, domineering. These are not the qualities of a great leader, these are the qualities of a tyrant.

Strong can mean strong enough to hear the counterargument and to take onboard the flaws in your plan. When we’re talking about strength, we need to consider the difference between brittle, hard strength and a softer, more flexible strength. That which can bend a bit does not break so easily, and not breaking is certainly a form of strength.

Strong can become a way of saying unmoveable. It can be a cover for stasis, for a lack of ideas and an absence of innovation. If strong just stands there being big and solid, it may not be able to grow, adapt and change in ways that are necessary for the circumstances. Flexible and adapting can turn out to be a lot more enduring than merely ‘strong’.

Like strength, stability can also imply immobility and lack of the means to bend and transform when necessary. Balanced can be a good thing, but balance isn’t always what’s needed. Stability can all too easily stay still when all around it is moving in chaos, but it may miss the sudden leap of progress, becoming stuck and irrelevant.

I’ve seen others point out on social media that there are connotations in ‘strong and stable’ that have a lot to say about how we value the weak, the vulnerable, the unstable. The Tory government so keen on the strong and stable line, has been increasing the risk of death for those among us who are not strong, and not so stable. To pinpoint these two ways of being as the best virtues is a bit sinister when viewed that way. It’s also a very narrow way of being. Soundbites are not good models for existence. Strength needs to know when to yield, when to allow humbleness and vulnerability into the mix. Stability needs to know when to get out of its rut and make serious changes.

We live in changing, uncertain times. I for one am not looking for strong and stable leaders. I’m looking for wise, flexible, innovative leaders who won’t be afraid to change direction in face of new evidence or circumstance. I’m looking for people with more than hollow soundbites to offer, and people who are willing to dig deep and think hard about what might be needed from them.


Spiritual life and the working week

For the first time in a good 15 years, I’ve had a month of working five day weeks and taking the weekends off. The consequences have been numerous. When I started out as a self-employed person, I guarded my weekends. However, the person I was living with became ever less interested in doing anything with time off, and so out of boredom I started doing more work at the weekends. Increasing financial pressure kept me there. Then I married a man who was entirely settled into seven day working weeks. It’s not easy taking time off when the person you most want to take time off with is working. What started as a bad call became a habit, and something that seemed necessary – and in fairness, actually was at some points.

There’s a macho culture in comics that is all about working yourself to death. In Japanese manga it’s even worse, with creators not being able to expect enough downtime for proper sleep, even. Our wider culture is keen to link wealth with hard work, and poverty with indolence, so if you aren’t raking it in, there’s a pressure to try and make sure everyone at least knows that you’re trying very hard all the time. It’s worth noting that exhaustion does not increase productivity or creativity. Rather the opposite.

The five day working week means I can have time to rest and relax, and the energy and time to socialise and get inspired. I’ve felt much less isolated this month, and there have been a lot of joyful things. Working almost all the time and being exhausted the rest of the time is a recipe for depression, and it certainly increases anxiety. I’ve got to a point where I can afford not to be flat out all the time, and for this I am deeply grateful.

I’m perfectly happy to think of anything I do as a potential expression of my Druidry. However, this is a thing to be cautious about, because it can mean just not really doing any Druidry. The more run-ragged I am, the less room I have for gratitude – and to be honest, the less reason as well. To practice gratitude you need the time to stop and appreciate things. A person running flat out all the time can’t do this. It’s difficult to meditate when you’re fretting about deadlines. It’s difficult to celebrate when you’re anxious about money and work.

To bring your spiritual practice to all things calls for time. It’s not compatible with a never-ending workload. It’s also, I eventually came to realise, deeply inhuman and dehumanising to just be something that works until it can’t and then falls over, and then does it again.

Some of it, is about whether you have the luxury of choice. With a low paid job, the ‘choice’ is to work long hours, or struggle to pay the bills for the most basic things. When the only job you can ‘choose’ requires a long commute, when you’re expected to work unpaid overtime, when you’ve got to work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, genuine choice is in short supply. Those of us who can choose, can do our bit not to support a culture of working to death. We can reject the idea that hard work is what brings money – it isn’t. Money is what brings money, and the traps that keep the poor in poverty are numerous.

Rest is a virtue, not a vice. It is something we should all have the right to, it should not be a privilege for the few.