Who are you? Writing virtues into the writing life

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‘Virtue’ is a word we don’t hear a great deal. There’s an anachronistic ring to it. It can also sound smug. A problem with over-focussing on self-improvement is that it can make us seem remote, self-satisfied and self-centred. An irony if we’re setting out to be kinder or more patient. We become rather like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby:

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

In Cultivating Virtue, philosopher Christine Swanton suggests that instead of cultivating ourselves, we concentrate on doing virtuous actions. The first step toward virtue is to act as if you have that quality. We then hope that through feedback and reflection, growth follows without self-obsessing. Or as Aristotle puts it:

(Wo)men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way… you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.

Who we are is fluid. We don’t come written in stone. Humans are adaptable. The environment we live in makes a huge difference, as do the choices we make. There are things we have little or no influence over in life, but we have the capacity to change, to become the person we want to be.

One of the joys of being a storyteller is that it’s not only about fiction. I can also write myself. But it has to go further than narrativising — my journal is a good place to plan and reflect, but it also has to translate into action.

With this in mind, at New Year I invested in a tiny book. And I set about a long journalling exercise around what 13 virtues or qualities I should action this year. Why thirteen?

Because I’d read an article about Benjamin Franklin who chose 13 virtues and focussed on one each week. Choosing 13 meant that each quality would get four weeks of attention over the year. That seemed feasible. And I like the idea of revisiting each quality whilst not obsessing about one or two things constantly.

A ‘year’ of course can start at any point, so if it appeals, you can begin at any time.

Thirteen qualities for the year

These are the 13 virtues or qualities that emerged for me over several journalling sessions:

1. Generosity

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Giving is the opposite of living out of fear and scarcity. It’s a deep and joyful mindset. It’s not about self-negation or sacrifice, but being outward-looking.

When we are generous we are enabling, empowering and encouraging without taking away the self-respect of others. And when we are generous we feel more optimistic, lighter, more rooted and connected.

As Simone de Beauvoir says:

That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.

2. Abundance

When I was in ministry I once failed to get a job I was interviewing for because when asked for my favourite quote from the Gospels, I replied:

I came to give life, life in all its fullness.

I don’t have a religious faith now, but that quote is one of many that stays with me. Life is short and precious. To live from abundance is an act of hope and a blow against despair.

3. Consistency

There’s no point being generous one day and mean the next. We are much better making tiny steps, one day at a time, to build consistency.

Consistency has a bad press. Oscar Wilde called it the ‘hallmark of the unimaginative’ and Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the ‘hobgoblin of little minds’.

So this one needs a caveat. I’m not talking about inflexibility or refusing to be adaptable. Change is crucial. Change is a sign of life. But there is a value in others knowing that we mean what we say, that our promises are trustworthy. And there’s a value in keeping the promises we make to ourselves.

And the things we persist with shape us. As Tony Robbins puts it:

It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.

4. Faith

Just as abundance builds on generosity, so faith builds on consistency.

In The Fault in Our Stars, one of John Green’s character says:

But you keep the promise anyway. That’s what love is.

You don’t need to believe in an unchanging essence at the core of every person to keep faith with yourself and humanity. Rather, as Satre proposed, we can take responsibility to shape our life and actions.

Like abundance, faith is a blow against despair. In the words of Albert Camus:

Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.

5. Attentiveness

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It’s not enough to show up, you have to focus.

If you are playing with your children in the park, you can’t be texting on your phone or taking work calls.

If you are listening to a friend who is going though hard times, you have to commit to truly listening.

If you are working on a creative project, you have to push the boundaries of your skills and give it all your attention.

Attentiveness is about being where we are without reserve. It’s about the moment. When we are not paying attention, things go wrong.

6. Letting Go

In a busy noisy world we can only pay attention to the few things that deserve our undivided attention if we let go of all the distractions that keep us fractured.

There are so many things we don’t need, but especially:

  • negative thoughts that mire us in the past,
  • limiting beliefs about ourselves and others that make life smaller,
  • the distraction of constant technology (unplug for a period each day, a longer period each week or month),
  • masses of stuff — I’m not a minimalist, but I when my environment is full of clutter it starts to overwhelm.

7. Creativity

To write, to cook, to make, to give meaning to a space, a day or a moment, to have a vision — these are lifeblood. Kurt Vonnegut says it best:

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

Closely followed by Einstein:

Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.

8. Gratitude

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The deep sense that life is valuable and the ability to mark it and celebrate it is transformative. When we acknowledge how much good we have in life, abundance follows.

Sometimes life is dark and challenging, but people who experience gratitude also tend to have more empathy and emotional resilience. The universe gets a lot wrong but whatever the context, how we respond always makes a huge difference.

For all that has been: thanks.
For all that will be: Yes.

Dag Hammarskjöld

9. Courage

About 18 months ago I went to a conference on crowdfunding. Another conference was going on in the same building with an inventive filmmaker who was adamant that we can break through limiting beliefs. He demonstrated this giving the members of his class the chance to walk barefoot on broken glass. And he came into our conference to ask if anyone wanted to join in.

It was an extraordinary and powerful experience.

So many of us do courageous things all the time but don’t notice how brave we are. We travel, give birth, start new careers in strange places, resolve not to stay in jobs that are crushing our spirits. Walking on glass wasn’t the most courageous thing I’ve done, but it sharpened my attention to this quality. Courage is foundational.

e.e. cummings insists:

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

And this from Maya Angelou:

Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.

If you are going to be grateful, it will take courage. If you want to create, it requires courage.

10. Openness

This might also be ‘flexibility’ or ‘adaptability’.

To be open to

  • new places,
  • new truth,
  • new people,
  • new experiences.

To be open to life takes courage, creativity and faith. It makes life more abundant. It’s a quality highly-prized by Rainer Maria Rilke:

…only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

11. Humility

This is not Uriah Heep’s variety of humbleness, which exists to draw attention to itself. Humility is at home with quiet, strong self-esteem. When we’re comfortable in our skin we don’t need self-aggrandisement. Humility shouldn’t be about ego. To quote C S Lewis:

True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

It’s a hard quality to focus on. The act of thinking about it tends to distract from the aim. But it’s possible to have a week thinking about others in your life, giving them some of that precious and undivided attention.

12. Humour

I am way too serious. I need this virtue to add balance. There are urban rumours that children laugh around 300 times a day whilst adults might laugh only 17–18 times. Even if this is false, we can all use a bit of levity. What is true, as Emma Bombeck points out, is that:

When humor goes, there goes civilization.

And as Victor Borge points out:

Humor is something that thrives between man’s aspirations and his limitations. There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth.

13. Passion

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Is passion a virtue? It should be.

  • To live deliberately with purpose and belief,
  • to care about justice and dreams,
  • to be proactive, not reactive,
  • to live each day awake and on fire.

I go back to Thoreau:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

Life is a gift, which brings me full circle — whatever else, be generous…

And finally —

What would your 13 qualities be?

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