NOTE: THIS EPISODE WAS PUBLISHED BEFORE OUR REBOOT. willwrightcatholic.com is now gooddistinctions.com
In last week’s episode/article, we took a deep dive into the distinction between judging people and judging actions. If you have not yet read that, I suggest doing that first! Next week, we will be rounding off this trilogy of articles/episodes with an exploration of the call to forgiveness.
We Disagree… So I Hate You
“You actually like that? You must be complete scum. I hate you!”
Okay. So, most people do not speak this way. But, I absolutely am convinced they are thinking it, on some level, and probably not too far from the surface.
Ideology, in our polarized society, is our overriding hermeneutic, which is just a fancy way of saying our method or theory of interpretation. Charity and kindness are afterthoughts, if they are thoughts at all. To bring back a real sense of culture and authentic human flourishing, we have to find a way to restore charity as the intentional hermeneutic. Charity is the principle virtue and kindness as the default approach.
In order to accomplish the restoration of charity as the guiding force and a kinder society, we have to understand what charity and kindness are. Charity, above all else, is a virtue. Kindness, rather than being only a virtue, is a fruit - the result of virtuous charitable living.
It would be worth offering a quick working definition of a virtue. A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to the good. As a habit, a virtue must be utilized; it cannot be enlargened with misuse or disuse. It must also be a firm disposition. Our choosing of virtuous action will not always be completely perfect and firm, but for an action to be virtuous it must be firmly chosen.
You cannot fall into virtue. It is intentional. As a disposition, the firm habit has become the routine course of our life. We are used to choosing a given virtue. Virtue has become a well-trained muscle, so to speak.
Charity is the first and greatest virtue. Without this virtue, no other virtue is possible. Charity is the greatest virtue because it is the love of God through which all things came into being and continue to exist. Without the Charity of the Almighty, we would cease to exist. As St. Paul says, and we will use the King James Version for some variation - I usually use the English Standard Version - “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring (Acts 17:28).”
Love Requires Freedom
Freedom is necessary for real love. Charity is freely given or it is not charity. It cannot be compelled. Love which is forced is not love at all. At the risk of being crass, but in order to make a point, what do we called “love” that is forced: we call it rape.
By the virtue of charity, we freely choose the good, as we understand it. In the private order, we give to others, without expecting anything in return. We share our time and talents with others, as a primary concern. We love those placed in our lives with full attention and care. In the public sphere, an entrepreneur practicing charity should seek to create value primarily and capture value secondarily. Much of virtue, in this regard, is right ordering of our lives: making sure our priorities are solid.
One Person at a Time
Freely chosen, the practice of the virtue of charity with one’s time, talent, and treasure begins to affect the whole world. Of course, this begins one person at a time. Charity moves in the heart of the virtuous person to act in accord with reason and reality. Rippling out, charity then begins to have an effect on all those in that person’s sphere of influence. This process of paying it forward then continues until the world is changed, if only slightly, for the better.
Once we have this process of rippling charity in view, it is easy to see how kindness results as a fruit on this tree of charity. When individuals are generous with their time and ability, directed to human dignity and flourishing, the world becomes just a bit better. The rough edges of the human experience are softened by authentic love and care. Blossoming from these encounters is true, selfless kindness.
Everyone Has Bad Days
Everyone has bad days. Perhaps we struggle to be charitable because of the struggles and suffering in our life. The purpose here is not to be perfect, but, on the balance, to improve. Getting a bit better at practicing charity each day requires cooperation. The objective moral order compels us to act in accord with reason and in line with reality. When we do this in a way which seeks the good of the other, we strive for charity and will bear kindness.
St. Augustine reminds us of the universality of the “bad day” but a reminder to live for today: “Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.”
Meekness is Not Weakness
We are called to be meek, as Jesus is meek. But meekness is not a weakness; it is strength. Meekness is power under control - a moderation of anger and stress. As conversations get tough, you can see where meekness is so vital. Kindness and charity does not mean shying away from the tough issues of the day, in order to not offend someone or hurt his or her feelings. We must never be malicious, if we are to be virtuous. We must never be intentionally hurtful, if we are to be charitable.
Instructing the ignorant can be a great mercy. St. Thomas Aquinas once said, “The greatest kindness one can render to any man consists of leading him from error to truth.” This gentle, kind leading from error to truth is a path that is best borne out of friendship. It is uncharitable to beat someone over the head with the truth. The most fruitful way is to share in the life of another and walk with them. There is an old saying, attributed to Billy Graham, that you must “build a bridge of trust to support the weight of truth.” Certainly, this is the case.
Back to Ideology and its Dangers
So, why does ideology sometimes work against charity and kindness? Ideology can be comforting. It assures us that we have a good, working framework from which to try to make sense of the world. If we did not have a point of departure, the sheer volume of data in the world around us would crush us into submission. In this way, ideology can be a comfort but we also run the danger of becoming too entrenched and defensive.
When someone adheres to a set of principles of ideas, they believe these ideas to be true, at least for the most part. For someone who is dogmatically affixed to only one viewpoint, the other perspectives are simply wrong. For someone who is unsure of their position or who adheres to a shaky viewpoint, another perspective is not only wrong but is seen as catastrophic. A single stray thought runs the risk of crumbling the foundations of an ideology. The response then becomes greater division, close-mindedness, and hatred.
There is nothing wrong with having convictions, especially about philosophical and theological matters. I would argue that these convictions are necessary to a well-ordered life. Otherwise, what is the organizing principle? The danger that must be avoided is a close-mindedness which cannot separate human persons from the ideas they hold. True charity accepts the person as they are, while also making the right distinctions in what that person might believe.
Making the Right Distinctions
If someone holds an ideology which does actual violence to another, then that ideology needs to be corrected and brought in line with the good of society. If an ideology goes against reason and reality, then it absolutely must be challenged and intellectually dismantled. This cannot, however, bleed over into a hatred of another person. This was the subject, in small part, of last week’s episode on judging actions not people. People and the ideas they hold are distinct, even if they are deeply-held.
On the other extreme, charity does not require having a mind which is far too open. The great English polymath, G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” If the mind is too open, the brain might slip right out of the head. Open-mindedness must be a willingness to engage with conflicting ideas without being hostile.
Put another way: if you are certain that your viewpoint is correct, then there is no need to be personally offended at the attack of that viewpoint. If your perspective is in accord with reality and reason, then you are on firm ground and can stand confident. And, if your perspective needs to be further clarified, then perhaps a good conversation or exploration will bring you closer to the truth. Either way, unwarranted outrage has no place in human flourishing.
Wrapping It Up
Rejecting harsh ideological divides, we can be virtuous men and women striving for charity and bearing kindness. Undoubtedly, such an example will have an effect on those around us. Charity and kindness are far more attractive than hatred, harshness, and pride. Maybe charity is not as flashy as uncharity and kindness is not as noticeable to our cynical modern world. But, they must be the goal if society is to be restored and culture is to be revived.
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