Virtue matters

We all have intellectual or abstract convictions, beliefs about the world. Some of us have more than others, some hold theirs more strongly than others.

We also have emotional reactions to things that do not always align with our intellectual convictions. Sometimes an emotional response betrays us, when we find ourselves in a situation where we feel strongly in a way that is at odds with our beliefs about the world. Other times, maybe we have little emotional response to an issue that we have strong intellectual commitment to, or vice versa.

And much of the time, we are suspended in an in-between moment, where we have intellectual beliefs about a thing but we haven’t yet encountered a situation that will reveal how our emotional experience will align with those beliefs.

For several years now, I’ve had a strong conviction about the importance of virtue. I’m attracted to the belief, I think there are compelling arguments for it, and it has been sometimes difficult but always worthwhile to act on that conviction when making decisions about the direction of my life.

Perhaps surprisingly, in those years I haven’t really found myself in situations where I’ve had a strong emotional response that reflected or opposed that conviction.

Recently though, there have been times when my dear son, still a toddler, is forced to choose between doing what he knows is right, and doing what is selfishly most attractive. He makes a choice that involves self-sacrifice, does it, but then afterwards he is grieved because in the short run, there is no benefit to him, only deprivation and emotional pain. Sometimes he feels the unhappiness very keenly, even as he sticks with his choice to do what is right.

My powerful emotional response is one that I’m glad to see in myself. I feel overwhelmingly proud of my son for this small but very significant act of virtue. And I long helplessly for the words to communicate to him that what he got was so much more valuable than what he gave up. It’s not just me as a parent wanting a peaceful life — it is a genuine desire to pass on to my beloved child what is most valuable.

On this matter, my heart and my head are agreed, as it turns out. And I am so grateful to know it.

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