Jordan Peterson is a psychologist from Toronto whom I greatly respect. I’ve listened to his lectures and podcasts thousands of times. In his lecture – The Necessity of Virtue, he starts off with this description, “Virtue, ethics, morality, isn’t a field of study … it’s a mode of being upon which all fields of study rests. It’s also a mode of being in which everything you do in your life rests. The way you understand yourself, or fail to. The ways you understand other people, or fail to. And more deeply than that – what role it is that you play in your life in the world.”
Virtues is the bedrock of mostly all our modes of interaction. If you are doing anything of substantial value – follow the trail back to it’s roots and you will find a strong, powerful virtue there. Walking alone through a dark forest – you are being brave. Helping your child with his homework – you are being kind. Working on a comic book for years – you are being patient and diligent. Every mode you find yourself in can be traced back to a virtue. And this is precisely why stories, art, movies, and songs are so exciting.
Spider-Man did not become the hero he is today by ignoring his virtues. Every fight, challenge, or adventure strengthened his virtues. Being kind to Aunt May and being brave towards his enemies produced the hero in Spider-Man.
Having virtue and cultivating virtuous modes of experience (consistently) usually awards the person with honor. It has the curious properties of making you feel special. It’s not competitive or antagonistic, but it is strong and thorough. Its job is to sow a seed in you in hopes that you become a better person, however that may materialize.
The stories that are in comic books tell us about how to behave with virtue. It’s right there, in our faces, we just need to listen to it. From the Punisher, who is a kind of Rambo – fed up with the enemy and gives them exactly what they deserve. To Venom, whose virtues have become somewhat skewed. To Iron Man, who trusts in his intelligence. All these heroes have, at their core, a virtue or are at least struggling to perfect their virtue.
It’s not EASY. Everything we learn is from trial and error. We were not born smart, righteous, or rich. Virtue is like the sun, nourishing our soul. Lack of virtue and the absence of virtue makes people ill. It’s like a wilting plant, starved for nourishment, only made worse by the way our modern society works.
If the Earth was going to war with an alien invasion (a popular movie scenario) from some distant, evil planet, what would we need to do to save Earth? The first thing that would happen is there would be a lot of confusion. So we would need to “Focus” and gain “Knowledge”. We would need to gather “Reliable” people. In doing so we are “Uniting” and “Co-operating”. We are “Trusting” that the right people are “Creative”, “Intelligent”, “Brave”, “Diligent”, “Responsible”. Then we “Resolve” the situation by repelling the enemy from our planet.
Forgiveness, compassion, and empathy are virtues predicated by the assumption that the one forgiving does not need anything in return. The strongest virtues are usually composed of selfless behavior. Sacrificing the best parts of yourself for someone else is the highest good – the strongest virtue ever.
A meaningful life, psychologists say, consists of significance, purpose, and coherence. Life is meaningful when it feels important, when it seems to have a point, and when it makes sense. Find out what virtues you are good at and practice those. Be the best person you can be. Create your own life story with your favorite virtue at the core.