Sunday, December 2, 2012


I am not a particularly virtuous person.  Sure, I have some natural virtues due to my temperament: I am very empathetic, so I would never willingly harm another person.  That's not exactly to my credit, though; I was born that way.  There are many other virtues I'd like to develop -- self-discipline, industriousness, punctuality, and so forth.  The trouble is that the root of these virtues is willpower, and I have very little willpower.  All the ways you can build willpower -- giving up certain foods, working out, getting up early every morning, cold showers -- are things that require willpower to do in the first place.  With a good reason, I can do all those things, but if it's just to build willpower, I talk myself out of them.

That's why I use what I call "crutches."  These are things that make me virtuous without my having to constantly force myself.  That sounds bad.  I mean, is it really virtue if you didn't do it yourself?  Let me explain.

The first time I consciously did this was in college.  I was looking for a summer job.  I had two possibilities for nannying -- one was easier, fewer hours, and fewer kids.  The other was harder, more hours, but roughly the same pay.  The second also seemed more important to me -- it was a single mom who really needed the help, and wanted someone who would go outside the job description and pitch in wherever needed.

I wanted to take the easier job, make the same money without working so hard.  But I thought, "I want to be a better person.  I want to have kids someday, and I want to know what I'm doing.  Taking the second job will probably train me in all the things a mother has to know, and really push me outside my comfort zone."  So that's what I did.  The job was grueling sometimes, but I didn't have a choice to back out.  I needed the money and my boss was relying on me.  I discovered what being a mom of older kids would really be like.  Some days I spent seven hours in the car!  I learned to cook dinner out of random odds and ends inside the pantry.  I feel a little sorry for my boss because she was landed with someone who knew pretty much nothing starting out.  But I knew a lot by the end of the summer.

It was the same when I took my first teaching job, and my second.  Both of these jobs, I realized would stretch me in ways I wasn't really comfortable with.  They would teach me a lot.  And they did, oh, they sure did.  I learned about patience, organization, diplomacy (those parents can be killer), discipline, and understanding.  Each year I grew a lot.

I have terrible willpower when it comes to food.  I think part of it is that I have a fast metabolism, which has gotten me used to always being hungry.  If there's food there, I will eat it.  Twice as much, if it has sugar in it.  I'm embarrassed to tell you how fast I have polished off packages of Oreos.  My solution here is I don't buy it.  My first year out of college, my rule was zero junk food on my own dime.  I would eat it at school, when offered (which is shockingly often), but it did not enter my apartment.  That worked well.  Subsequently, I've relaxed the rule a bit (because I don't get free cookies at work anymore) to zero junk food I haven't cooked.  I buy a bag of sugar every once in awhile, use it sparingly, and when it's gone, I have to live without junk food for awhile.  (My exception is ice cream.  I do eat ice cream I haven't made.  But it's too cold to really eat a ton of in a sitting.)  I feel that some homemade cookies, made with half the sugar, aren't on the same wavelength as Oreos, and anyway they're enough work to cook that I'm not really tempted to do this daily.  A nice result of making good habits this way is that I am not used to eating a ton of junk, and when it is available, I start to get disgusted if I've eaten too much.  It's easier to say when.  And "food" like soda or candy doesn't even appeal to me at all anymore.

I'd say I married my husband for this reason, but really it was more of an excuse.  I was in love with him anyway.  But I do remember thinking, "Well, he is very different from me.  Maybe I will pick up some of his virtues, like his tidiness, punctuality, and clear thinking."  And I have.  Not enough to quite satisfy him, because a neat freak like him will always be a bit annoyed by a slob like me.  But I've gotten to a point that mess really bothers me and I work hard to fix it.  If I don't feel like fixing it, I think of how he will feel if he gets home from a stressful day and sees a mess.

That's the key, I think: I'm working with the one virtue I naturally have.  I naturally have empathy and concern for other people.  I put myself in situations where my empathy will drive me to show up on time, keep my kitchen clean, plan ahead, keep my temper, and learn to wait.

Parenting is the ultimate teacher of virtue.  I can't think of another motivation that would be enough to get me to wake up at six a.m., clean up other people's stuff all day, cook four healthy meals a day, get outside daily, go to bed at a decent hour, keep my language clean, and keep my temper in the most provoking circumstances.  Just this week I have begun meal planning -- not just dinners but three meals and a snack, every day.  That is very not me.  But I realized it's the only way to make sure we all are eating healthy food when we need it.

There are so many things I couldn't possibly do "to build willpower" that I can easily do for others.  Sometimes I feel guilty, like it's "fake" virtue because I'm not really that good at this stuff, just using crutches to force myself to do it.  But on the other hand, I'm doing what I need to do, and if I manage to do that, does it really matter so much how?


Enbrethiliel said...


For the record, I personally don't think it's fake virtue if you have a crutch.

On the other hand, I just read an intriguing blog post that suggested it's fake learning if you use a calculator or look something up on Wikipedia, so I understand your concern.

Now if I could only remember where else I read that there are three parts of us involved in everything we do: heart, mind and will. You see, I think that if the heart and mind get it right but the will needs a crutch, that's not a problem. (I had a similar discussion with a friend two weeks ago, when she said she was worried that she didn't really believe certain things the Church teaches and just kept telling herself, "My dad is a smart man and he believes in it, so there must be something to it." In her case, I'd say the mind is what needs a crutch, but I don't think that takes anything away from her efforts to be a good, if slightly skeptical Catholic.)

Salixbabylonica said...

Virtue crutches are the opposite of occasions of sin. I think they operate on the same principle - if willingly putting yourself in an occasion of sin is itself a sin, then willingly putting yourself in an occasion of virtue is itself a virtue.

Sheila said...

You're probably right. I like the idea of an "occasion of virtue," SB. It's like what I do for Marko, "setting him up for success" by childproofing, not eating stuff in front of him I don't intend to share, and make sure he gets his naps. In a way I guess it's just being humble and realistic about my abilities -- knowing I can't just assume I have virtues, but trying to give myself a framework to do virtuous things.

Anonymous said...

Your crutch is the real virtue. You are doing it for love. Virtue that's all about just becoming a better person seems a bit self-centered. Of course, I suppose the ultimate would be doing it for God, but He did say, Whatever you did for the least of my brethren, that you did unto me."

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