One way I’ve found it helpful to think about growing in virtue is as preparation for an unknown deadline.
It’s hard to train for something when there’s no need for it. Most of the time, we wait until there’s a threat of some sort looming, and then we begin working.
We get a scary diagnosis and then start trying to eat healthier foods. We see a relationship crumbling and then get serious about solving that addiction. We are jobless and then start learning new skills. We get talked into signing up for a marathon and then begin trying to find time to go for jogs.
And how much easier is it to put off more intangible goals like wisdom, moderation, courage?
Let’s use athletic training as an illustration. It can take months to start from scratch and become a decent long distance runner. It takes years of consistent work to reach the limits of how much we can benefit from strength training.
If we wait until we need one of these abilities and then start training for it, there’s a good chance we won’t have time to prepare well, and the opportunity will have passed us by.
So what if we instead started training before we need it?
One benefit of that approach is how we can find ourselves utterly unhurried. Start training now, but assume a nice slow timeline. “I want to be able to run a marathon three years from today.”
All of a sudden, training is easy. We never have to push ourselves to levels of discomfort that would make us want to quit. We see small, consistent, effortlessly attained improvements, and it’s exciting. It’s addictive. We might very well end up hitting our goal long before we had planned to.
The discouraging voice in your head may object. “Three years? What if something unexpected comes up in a couple months? This plan is as good as useless!”
And yet, being two months into a training program, even an unambiguous program, is unimaginably more advantageous than being zero months into one. Your body is adapted to the initial aches and pains. You’ve got a training habit in place. You’ve got a foundation in place for a more intense training phase if one is needed.
And probably you won’t suddenly, urgently need to be an ultramarathoner in two months. Remember, your life has been (in this hypothetical scenario) designed to accommodate a relatively low level of fitness.
More likely, in six months or a year, some opportunity will appear which is not unavoidable, but which might be beneficial to be a part of, an opportunity that is well within your abilities now that you’ve been training, but which you otherwise would have had to miss out on. Maybe that opens a door of opportunity that sets off a chain reaction.
Or maybe, the day when you need to be super fit doesn’t arrive until half a decade later. That day, you race down the street, block after block, arriving just in time to save a life, or salvage a relationship, or preserve a career. You didn’t know the day was coming. You couldn’t have designed a training program for it.
You’re just glad that you prepared, at a time when you had no idea what you were preparing for.
And that applies to all different ways of improving ourselves.
So then, start now. Choose one thing. Don’t start running and a diet and a language and a reading project and a writing project and trying to kick that bad habit and being more encouraging all at the same time. Start one thing, and start it slowly. It’s better than nothing, and maybe, just maybe, when you eventually need it, you’ll be ready.