Sunday, July 29, 2012

When Virtue Pays I

N.B. This is the first of three posts that deal vaguely with that very Aristotelian concept of eudaimonic virtue.  If that bores you, apologies!  Come back next week.  

A week or two ago I wrote a piece for the Catholic woman’s blog Altcatholicah.  I had been supposed to write something for Altcatholicah for a while, but I was running short on time and inspiration both … until I saw a certain exchange in the comment box of a previous piece on Altcatholicah.
The commenter was rude, off-base, off-point, off-ensive … supply your own favorite adjective.  I didn’t like what he had to say, and I didn’t like the way he said it.  As usual, my fingers moved much more quickly on the keyboard once I got a little angry.
And stubborn.  Most people get stubborn when they get angry.

There are kinds and kinds of anger.  There is of course the familiar passionate, physical, devil-may-care kind of anger, that specializes in insults and generalizations.  But there is another kind of anger, that is the intellectual cousin of the athletes competitive rush of adrenaline.  The kind that aims absolutely to win, but to win fairly, evenhandedly, quietly, logically.  The kind of anger that is less about injury to oneself than it is to an offense against the truth.  That was the kind of anger under which I was operating when I wrote “Charmed.”
And lo and behold … a miracle occurred.  The completely off-base commenter from the previous discussion made his dreaded appearance.  I saw the name, saw the first few words, and groaned.  I didn’t want another war with him.
Then I read the comment, quickly, as if that were somehow going to enable me to miss anything offensive he might say.  But the feeling with which his comment left me was far less worrisome than I had bargained for.  We disagreed, but he had been … well, not not-nice about it.
Later that day I decided I ought to go and actually answer the comments that where asking for answers.  I read the Enemy’s comment again, more carefully.  Is this even the same guy? I asked myself.  I clicked back to the older article, read a few of his lines there, and clicked back to his comment on my piece.  It was the same guy alright.  But different.  He wasn’t …
He wasn’t angry.
And I was suddenly very ashamed.  Not because I had been mad at him (he had earned it fair and square in this case), but because I had assumed he was far too caught up in his petty rage to respond with anything like the level of courtesy that he had shown me.
And I remembered a story I’d heard many times as a child, one that used to play on my mom’s old cassette tape along with Sergeant Murphy’s Safety Rules and the long-lost tale of the See-Through Crumb Picker.  I googled some phrases, and this is the story I found.
The North Wind and the Sun (Jean de La Fontaine)
One morning the North Wind and the Sun saw a horseman wearing a new cloak.
“That young man looks pleased with his new cloak,” said the North Wind. “But I could easily blow if off his back if I wanted to.”
“I don’t think you could,” said the Sun. “But let us both try to do it. You can try first.”
The North Wind began to blow and blow and blow. People had to chase after their hats. Leaves were blown from the trees. All the animals were frightened. The ships in the harbor were sunk. The North Wind blew with all his might, but it was no use, for the horseman just pulled his cloak more tightly around him.
“My turn now,” cried the Sun. And as he gave out his gentle heat, insects hummed and flowers opened. The birds began to sing. The animals lay down to sleep. And the people came out to gossip. The horseman began to feel very hot, and when he came to the river he took of his clothes and went in for a swim.
So the sun was able to achieve by warmth and gentleness what the North Wind in all his strength and fury could not do.
There are many, many reasons for being temperate when you argue.  But one of the better ones is that maybe, just maybe, you will persuade your opponents.  At the very least they may prove themselves better listeners than you ever dreamed they could have been.

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