Tag Archives: virtue

So okay, let’s say my and Ryan’s friendship is like that: let’s say it’s made of steel underneath, and the other bits have just got to fall away. What about the eros — does that fall away, too?

Even if the answer is “no”, I’ll take it. What’s the alternative? Drop him because the friendship isn’t worth the price? I complained to somebody once, in the earlier days of my gayness, that it seemed like every time I got close to a guy, this sort of thing would rear its head.1 His advice boiled down to, “Maybe stop getting close to guys, then.” That was the last time I asked him for advice.

That’s not the case, by the way: it doesn’t happen that way with everybody. With some guys, it’s all friendship and no eros. Lord, I love those friendships, they’re like spring, they’re like cool water! And then with some, it’s all eros and no friendship. Yech, no thank you. When the eros evaporates like cheap body spray, there’s nothing left but greasy residue.

eros-body-spray

And then with some guys it’s clearly a friendship, but with some kind of semi-permanent foreign element, a live-in enemy, something I have to guard against and occasionally struggle against. That’s how it was with Sal, but I refused to feed the eros, until it finally got starved and, I’m pretty sure, dropped away completely. Kind of like rubber band ligation for hemorrhoids.

If Ryan were a priest and I were a single woman, or if he were a nun and I were a bachelor, and we were flat out in love with each other, that would be different. It’d be asking for trouble. The most we could hope for would be to maintain a permanent and painful state of suspension. The relationship would have no possible consummation.

When I say consummation, I mean that moment when a thing becomes what it is, when the truth of the thing breaks out, when the bud opens. Where lovers are concerned, the seed is eros and the fruits are many — marriage, children, diapers I guess, who knows what other mysteries. This is why, the first time a husband and wife have sex, we say that they have consummated the marriage: they’ve taken a concrete and irrevocable step into the domain of marriage, and can now begin to flower in earnest.

But what is the consummation of a friendship? I don’t know if there is one. If marriage is an orchid, with a bud that becomes a blossom, maybe friendship is an oak tree, whose purpose is not so much fruit as it is the deepening of roots, the widening of trunks, the recording of every passing year by adding another ring.

Oaks have acorns, of course, and friendship does have its fruits: things like old inside jokes, maybe. But the point is that the orchid and the oak are different organisms, two different kinds of tihngs. The more the orchid becomes itself, the more it tends towards the blossom; the more the oak becomes itself, the deeper its roots go.

An orchid is supposed to be delicate and voluptuous; but if an oak is delicate and voluptuous, then it’s not a very good oak. What’s good in a friendship, in other words, might be bad in a romantic relationship, and vice versa.

Then this is the question: can the relationship of two men ever be an orchid, or is such a relationship always an oak? If two men think their relationship is an orchid, are they just plain wrong, because that’s impossible? When I fell for S., was I an orchid for real? Or was I just an oak with an identity crisis?

1 Heh.

I’m still working on a couple of stubborn projects in the background. Meanwhile, here is this tidbit that has been on my mind. Needless to say, “Hannah” and “Alex” are not the real names of my friends.

I was recently talking with my friend Hannah, and I mentioned our mutual acquaintance, Alex. Neither Hannah nor I have known Alex for very long, but I think highly of him. I like the affection he shows his wife. I like the tenderness he shows his kids. I like the casual kindness he shows towards people he doesn’t know very well.

So I was surprised when Hannah suddenly told me a story about a time when Alex was rude to her. I countered, mildly, with a story that put Alex in a good light; and Hannah replied with a second story that put Alex in a bad light. She was determined to show me that I shouldn’t like him nearly so much as I did.

It worked. Ever since then, without wanting to, I’ve looked at Alex differently. Hannah said he was self-absorbed, so now when I see him speak his mind without thinking about it — a trait that I appreciate, because to me, it means he is guileless — I wonder whether it’s not a vice instead of a virtue. Maybe he should think more and speak less. Suddenly his simplicity looks like arrogance. Suddenly, without wanting to, I like him less.

I’m not shocked when people are rude to each other, because I understand that nobody has perfect control over their tongue — but still, everybody knows that being rude is bad. But I was shocked and disturbed at what Hannah did to me and to Alex, even though I have doubtless done the same. I was shocked and disturbed because she had no idea that there was anything wrong with what she said. She didn’t understand the power that she had over my perceptions.

So, as a public service announcement to those who have never been taught about gossip, here is why I believe that it is evil.

  • When you say bad things about somebody, especially somebody that I don’t know very well, it makes it more likely that I will grow to hate them a little more. You are teaching me how to hate that person.
  • When you say good things about somebody, especially somebody that I don’t know very well, it makes it more likely that I will grow to love them. You are teaching me how to love that person better.
  • I am good at discovering the evil in other people. I don’t need your help. If it’s true that they’re bad, I’ll probably find out for myself.
  • I’m not nearly as good at discovering the good in other people. I need your help to do that. If it’s true that they’re good, I might never notice it unless you show me.

Please don’t gossip at me, and please call me out on it if I do it at you.

A reader writes:1

I’ve always had a love/hate perspective on martial arts. On the one hand, it’s so cooool! And I’m really into Avatar (the cartoon), which sort of shows some very different real-life fighting styles, and it’s all very interesting. And…I think it could only be a good thing to be capable of defending myself and others if need be. And anything that gets me in better shape is good.

On the other hand, I’ve got a gentle disposition. I’ve been called extremely phlegmatic, and I always favor amiableness over confrontation, to a fault…And while I’ll readily admit that I could stand to toughen up some, I also see a lot of good things in my peaceful nature.

So, while it seems prudent and valuable to be capable of self-defense, I don’t actually relish the thought of fighting itself. Plus, I get the sense that martial arts should be studied for the “right reasons,” whereas
I would admittedly be reveling in the “look at this roundhouse kick, I’m badass” factor a bit.

Even had I not previously corresponded with this reader, he would have instantly endeared himself to me by revealing his love for Avatar, and distinguishing it both from the Cameron glitzfest and the Shyamalan atrocity.

I think Avatar is a true work of art, and if you’re not sure how a cartoon that’s (ostensibly) for kids can be a true work of art, (1) that’s silly, and (2) how many kids’ cartoons do you know that have the artistic cojones to visually quote from Michelangelo, and can pull it off, too?

Katara and Aang recreate the Pieta

But I digress.

Let me address the coolness factor first. If a thing is cool, and is in no way morally objectionable, I think you should do it. Kung Fu is cool, and is in no way morally objectionable. Therefore, I think you should do it.

That’s a simple syllogism, but people who are thoughtful, serious, and sensitive (like this reader) are not always willing to accept that they should do something just because it’s cool, or fun, or enjoyable — but in the same breath will openly admire somebody who does things just because they’re cool, or fun, or enjoyable.

Sometimes we think we need a nobler reason to do something than just because we like it. This is because of a misunderstanding of virtue. A thing is virtuous despite being unpleasant, not because of it. If we were perfectly virtuous, virtuous actions would be perfectly easy and enjoyable — the way Glenn Gould not only played the piano exponentially better than I ever will, but (after years of practice) had an easier time of it, too.

Or we imagine that it’s selfish to do something just because we like it. While it’s true that it would probably be selfish to spend all our time doing things just because we like them, I doubt that this reader — being thoughtful, serious, and sensitive — lives a life of constant self-gratification. So Kung Fu is probably a good idea.

This business of “doing things for the right reasons” makes me think of Sihing2 Bengie, who is a black sash at my Kung Fu school, and claims that, had Neo mentioned a different martial art,

say, Tae Kwon Do, his own path would have been very different. Twenty-something Bengie saw The Matrix and decided to be just that badass, and so he was.

Thinking of Sihing Bengie reminds me of something else about “the right reasons”: just because you’re doing something you enjoy doesn’t mean you won’t be presented with opportunities to bring love and light to the world while you’re doing it.

Our Sifu3 is very much a father figure to us, and Bengie extends that fatherliness to those below him: he engages others in conversation, he offers encouragement during drills, and when he spars with you, he uses it as an opportunity to teach rather than to dominate. Whatever your religion, these things — care for others, giving of self — lead to saintliness.

I guess you could limit your activities to things you don’t enjoy, but that would be dumb, and you wouldn’t be any holier for it; you’d just be sadder. Or you could limit your activities to things that are only done 100% for the right reasons, but then you’d never do anything at all.

Kung Fu is a field where taking delight and showing love are often done at the same time and for the same reason. Like Heaven.

Stay tuned for Part II on Monday.

1 As always, I have asked the reader’s permission to publish his email, and would never publish private correspondence without explicit consent. That being said, feel free to let me know preemptively if you wouldn’t mind seeing an email of yours appear here.
2 “Sihing” means “older brother”. It’s the title by which we refer to a male black sash. Some systems use this title for any student who is more senior than you.
3 “Sifu” means master or teacher or father.

Imagine somebody trying to overcome a habit of gluttony who spends his free time watching cooking shows, and who, every time he passes a bakery, stops to breathe the smells in deeply for a full minute.

It’s not going to work. The temptation to overeat doesn’t occur in isolation: it’s a symptom of a broader mindset. We notice the overeating because it’s obvious, and because we feel bad afterwards. But we don’t always notice what led up to it, because we’ve gotten in the habit of letting ourselves get away with these things — and because, in and of themselves, they might not even be sinful.

In the same way, if you’re trying to kick a porn or masturbation habit, you’re not going to succeed unless you — sorry about this — change your life. The actual act of masturbating or viewing porn, as damaging as it is, might not be the most serious problem you face.

Going around with an eye that gobbles up little sexual details all through your day, and lingers a second too long on every bit of bare skin it sees; habitually viewing your fellow human beings, not as brothers and sisters and fellow immortals, but as mechanisms with the potential to satisfy your cravings — this is the real problem, the real disease.

The act that follows, at a weak moment, isn’t the point. That’s just the inevitable flowering of the dark plant that you’ve been watering, and tending, and singing to, all day long.

St. Dominic Savio and I have a complicated relationship. I learned about him from Z., a luminous, vivacious, and wounded woman with a mystical bent who was my fourth-grade teacher (in a sort of a homeschool co-op thing) and my confirmation sponsor. My older brother Caleb tells me I was so taken with St. Dominic that, whenever I was doing something he didn’t like, all had to say was “You know, I bet DOMINIC SAVIO would let me have the last of the potato chips” and I’d get all shamefaced and hand them over.

So that’s why Dominic Savio is my confirmation name. I confess to having a sort of grudge against him now, something I’ve never quite dealt with. The grudge is because he was such a good boy, and so was I. The problem is that my goodness at the time was more neurotic than genuine, more out of fear than out of love; or so it seems to me now. Was it really? Can you be a good boy without being a prissy one? Does all goodness begin in a kind of hypocrisy?

Whenever I compare my adolescence with those of others — great way to send myself into an emotional tailspin, NOT RECOMMENDED — I’m always struck by how much more drinking, pot-smoking, vandalism, fighting, and general screwing around everybody else seems to have done. It’s not that my adolescence wasn’t filled with vice; it’s just that my vices seem to have been so much less badass than they should have been.1

Dominic Savio didn’t hold with poop jokes or dick jokes — two things that, from time immemorial, young men have used as the basis, or at least the beginning, of friendship. So I can’t help blaming St. Dominic for my own prudishness at that age. If I had been less devoted to him, would I have been less standoffish and therefore less lonely? If I had been less conscientious, would I also be less neurotic? Was St. Dominic really as prudish as I was, or was that his biographers fell prey to the tendency towards idealisation that obscures the humanity of so many of the saints?

Or was it only that I couldn’t distinguish between prudishness and chastity, scrupulosity and virtue? A difficult distinction for any 10-year-old (or 28-year-old) to grasp, especially a 10-year-old who was already eager for his elders to think he was perfect.

I have a friend, C., who seems to have nothing wrong with him at all. He’s not neurotic in any way I can see, he doesn’t cut people down, he doesn’t talk with casual (or any) filthiness. He goes to Mass every day, spends time in prayer every evening, gets up early without complaining, and consistently puts his friends’ and family’s well-being before his own — but does it so you wouldn’t notice, as if it’s just what anyone would expect.

Can you believe that I have it in me to look down on him? Because, I tell myself, his interior life lacks complexity and intensity. Because he’s not tormented and conflicted and INTERESTING like I am. Because he doesn’t seem to be prey to the perpetual whisperings of the Accuser, like I am. How do I know all these things? Because I have perfect insight into the state of his mind, heart, and soul at all times.

Ha ha, just kidding! I don’t actually know jack sh★t about any of those things, because I have exactly zero access to his interior life. They might all be true. Or none of them might be true. Not my business.

My business is to somehow discover C.’s trick of purity without prudishness, friendship without obsession, integrity without scrupulosity, charity without bombast. In a word, my business is to become more like Christ, and to be patient with myself until I get there.

1 And I’m always surprised when people say that they regret this kind of thing. I always think, “Regret? But you were SO COOL!” I know, the grass is always greener.

I love my motorcycle. It’s a middleweight, 650cc and about 450 pounds, and is as old as I am but still gets 50 miles to the gallon. I love the speed and the wind, the freedom and the closeness to the landscape. I think I love my bike just as much as you can safely love an inanimate object, or possibly more; she’s got a name, and I’ll occasionally pat her on the flank1 when she reminds me just how responsive her throttle is, or executes a particularly beautiful turn. That’s why they call it an iron horse.

The speed of her! It’s like that bit in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” When we’re kids, we tear around the yard just for the pleasure of speed. Simcha Fisher remembers this: “When we were little, centrifugal force and acceleration, momentum and gravity were our playthings!” Every physicist, if he’s a good physicist, knows that the laws of the universe are beautiful. Every kind of physical play glorifies God, because it glorifies the laws that He made.

I determined to buy a bike shortly after Pentecost this year, and impious or not, I do connect the one with the other. Pentecost is a time for making changes, overcoming inertia, and inertia has always been a big problem for me. It’s easy to get excited about a new resolution, whether it’s a resolution to build a virtue or get your motorcycle license, but it’s harder to follow through on it, when the vision has faded a little and the whole thing starts looking impractical and inconvenient.

I know it’s no virtue to own a bike, but it is a virtue to determine to do something good and then to do it. The Lord transforms our hearts, piece by painful piece, but he works with what we’ve got. So the natural virtues are transferrable: sticking to your diet might or might not be a moral good, but it builds the moral muscles you need to stick to your faith.

As you might expect with a 28-year-old bike, it breaks down pretty often, and that’s a good, too. Sort of. I mean, I won’t pretend that I haven’t occasionally screamed in rage, maybe just a little bit, when yet another part breaks and I know I have another grease-soaked Saturday ahead of me. But the work turns into pleasure, too,2 and every new repair makes me feel a little more real, a little closer to the physical world.

I park my bike on the street, and a couple of weeks ago some jackass dumped her over and didn’t even leave a note. The force of the fall bent the handlebars, making the bike useless, so I spent part of last night taking the old one off, a pretty convoluted process that involved disconnecting most of the instrumentation. But again, it was a blessing in disguise: a couple of neighbors happened by, guys my age who I’d met in passing a few times, and we ended the night by killing a respectably-sized bottle of Maker’s between the three of us. It was an unexpected pleasure, which is the best kind.

I’m not saying everyone should get a bike, or that driving one is an intrinsic good. I’m just saying, life is good, God is good, and my bike helps me remember those things.

1 I mean, gas tank.
2 Once you get past the teeth-grinding frustration of a part that won’t fit where it’s supposed to, a bolt that won’t come off without stripping, or the realization that you’ve bought the wrong allen wrench.

I admit I used to pray that my SSA would be taken away. I guess I still do, occasionally, though not with great conviction. I reckon that if He wanted to take it away, He would have by now, and it’s not something I should worry about too much.

Besides, in one sense, I doubt He could do it. God can do anything, but as Dorothy Sayers pointed out, some propositions aren’t “things” at all. That’s why the old business with can-he-make-a-rock-so-heavy-he-can’t-lift-it, is nonsense. It’s like saying, “Oh yeah? If God’s so powerful, can He make a point that oranges a square?”

The reason I doubt He could do it is this. My SSA isn’t my essence, but it’s deep inside me, and it’s tied to everything else. I have a beautiful children’s book by Jean Vanier. In one of the illustrations, Jesus is carefully untangling a sheep that’s gotten caught in the thorns. I think that for God to suddenly undo my SSA would be like yanking the sheep out of those thorns. What else would come away with it?

Speaking of thorns: not long ago at Mass we had the parable of the wheat and the tares, a story that seemed perverse to me when I was younger (why not just yank out all the weeds NOW?), but which I understand better now. Things are mixed now, they are tangled and unclear; that is the nature of the world. We can’t just yank out the parts that don’t suit us, because we don’t know what they’re for, and because we don’t know what they’re attached to: “while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.”

What would it be like if tomorrow I woke up straight? What would I be like? I can’t imagine. Would I be attracted to women but still desire men emotionally? That would be an impossible situation, and I wouldn’t be any more suited for marriage than I am now. Then would I suddenly not want intimacy with men?

First of all, that would be just as unnatural as wanting the wrong kind. People are made for intimacy with people, and all men, straight or gay, are meant for friendship. It’s also true, though, that the specific kind of desire I have for men — the romantic kind — isn’t natural and isn’t good.1 But that’s the reason it’s not the kind of thing God takes away.

I mean this: He doesn’t take away my SSA for the same reason that He won’t magically make me unselfish, or courageous; he won’t zap away my laziness or my self-indulgence. These are things that, by their nature, take work. If I was the kind of person who actually wanted to get out of bed at 6AM every morning, or who just naturally felt cheerful all the time, that wouldn’t mean I was virtuous. It would just mean I was lucky.

Where would I be if I had been born without clear and obvious flaws? I’d be arrogant as all get out, for one. The fact that I can still manage to be arrogant now, even after seeing myself be petty and selfish on innumerable occasions, is pretty astonishing.

Imagine how screwed I’d be if there were nothing wrong with me?

1 I know that even a lot of Christians will disagree with me here. That’s fine with me. I do hold that, though the desire in itself isn’t natural or good, it’s based on something that is natural and good.

AoM responds to Ian Lang’s assertions over at the cesspool known as AskMen.com. Sample assertion:

Finally, do you think your dad would enjoy lying in a field with you making daisy chains and contemplating what it means to be a man? No. He would tell you to work hard, that life doesn’t ever get easier and to stop being such a pussy.

Snip from the response:

Yes, a man should be a man of action. That is the end of his creation. But what is the means to that end? What kind of actions should he take? What is driving that action? What is the purpose of that action? What kinds of goals and priorities, values and morals should a man have? Contemplation is needed to answer these questions. Contemplation leads to right action.

Read the whole thing here.