There is no time like the present to consider developing your virtues. Having virtue is often described as the mark of a great person. What are virtues? And how are they developed?
Virtues are the qualities within us that make us our best selves. Lists of virtues date back to antiquity.
Socrates (470 – 399 BCE) offered four main virtues: Courage, Moderation, Justice, and Wisdom. In early Christianity, seven virtues were identified. These were: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.
In Buddhist philosophy, virtues are called paramitas, or perfections. A common list of six perfections lists generosity, ethical restraint, patience, vigor, concentration, and wisdom.
Each set of virtues is shaped by the philosopher or tradition that created it. And each list in turn shapes us as individuals. What are your virtues? What are some of the ideal traits you see in great people around you? Your list doesn’t need to come from any tradition. But once you have a list, you can seek to work on them—and yourself—every day.
Like a lot of self-improvement projects, this one will be hit or miss. It takes time and effort to make our virtues come to mind in times of need. As a new father, a few of the virtues I’ve tried to work on have been patience, duty, and perseverance.
Patience is obviously needed when working with an infant and toddler. But it is also incredibly helpful for me to be patient with myself. When I’m fumbling with the diaper and the baby is wiggling, it helps to give myself a break. I can then offer a soothing word to the baby: “you’re doing great, almost there, almost there.”
I also have developed patience for my wife, who is a saint and needs very little patience to begin with. But she, too, struggles with the baby, and sometimes with her work, and with life in general. There are definitely times when this impacts me, and in turn my work. But I know she’s more often than not the first one called in when the baby really needs something. So, it makes sense that she’s often more exhausted. And sometimes I need to just step in and help however I can.
This is where a sense of duty finds its place. I have long been a fan of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). For him, the highest moral good was duty. And duty for him is precisely when we do something that we don’t want to do and we find no particular pleasure in doing it.
One of Kant’s duties was the duty to help others. We must help others when we can because if we do not, we will quickly find ourselves alone, distrusted by others, and without help when we ourselves need it. And we will need it.
When we commit ourselves to a job, a partner, or having a child, we are committing ourselves to a relationship of helping. And we trust and hope that they will help us in return. But even if they don’t, we can still develop and express the virtue of duty. With a child, it can be somewhat easy. Your duties include pretty much everything the kid needs. Everything else becomes secondary, including your own needs. Even sleep (especially sleep!) goes out the window at times.
Much of what a parent does is not fun. As a parent, you just do this for the child. It is your duty. So, you do it. And you can take pride in doing it as well as you can. The pay-off is hopefully raising a good kid who does good in the world. That’s all.
For Kant that last bit was very important. You can’t be calculating some future consequences, e.g. will the kid take care of me later in life? Will I win some sort of parenting prize or admiration from peers? If you are, Kant would say you’re just being self-serving and not cultivating any virtue, even if you’re doing the same things. To cultivate duty, you do the right thing without thought of good coming back to you.
You change the diaper because it is what is needed. You hold the baby for hours, walking and singing gently, because that is what is needed. And if you’re tapped out and you know your partner has a little more energy, you call on them to step in. And they will step in, if they too recognize the duty to do so.
Perseverance, the virtue of just going on even when every part of you wants to quit, is a great virtue to have. This is especially true when you have kids. But even without, how many of us have had our bodies and emotions pushed to the edge in the last two years?
Often, the only consolation for surviving such trials is the knowledge that you can do it. Seeing ourselves pushed to the edge and surviving builds perseverance. Ideally, we can cultivate this virtue on our own terms. I had the fortune of being able to start a Ph.D. in my 20s. And that process certainly pushed me to the intellectual edge constantly. At times I was emotionally and physically exhausted too. And yet, after a decade or so, I finished.
At the age of 29 I also ran a marathon. I was able to train for it on my own terms. And I had plenty of time to carve out the ever-lengthening training runs. Nonetheless, I was limping for a day or two afterward. It had pushed my body to the edge. And yet, in just under 4 hours, I had completed it.
These are things I look back on as both major accomplishments and as periods of cultivation of perseverance. No doubt you will have many of your own. If we’re lucky we have a choice over how and when to cultivate our virtues. But in the end, it is how we live them in difficult times that matters.
If we’re having a tough time now, it can help to consider the virtues that are carrying us on. These will be strengthened by this experience. And if we are finding this to be an easy time, we can look for ways to stretch and strengthen the virtues we hold dear: volunteer at our place of worship, reach out to old friends or distant relatives, sign up for a marathon, the choices are endless.
Whether these are difficult times for us, or for those around us, virtues can be our guiding stars in moving forward.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.