What is meant when we refer to someone as being virtuous? What we are saying in essence is that person lives his or her life according to high moral standards. Whether we are conscious of the fact or not, our speech, our behaviors, and our lifestyle in general, can have a tremendous influence on the life of people whom we meet on our life’s journey. Even though people may not say anything to us, we can be assured that they are watching us, and some even begin to imitate the virtues that they see in us.
Our Life Story Influences the Lives of Others
Helen Mirren, an English actress, is quoted as saying, “You write your life story by the choices you make. You never know if they have been a mistake. Those moments of decision are so difficult.” Therefore, if we are to write a life story which will have an indelible mark for the good, we must take care in how we present ourselves to others because we are the living pages of that story that is being written daily. We must realize that people make decisions about the type of person they perceive us to be according to the life that we live and the example that we set before them. If we live our lives virtuously, many people will want to follow our example in improving their own standards of living.
As means of a personal example of what I am speaking of, some time ago I had a conversation with someone whom I had never met. After our brief conversation, the person felt impressed to write me a little note to express the impression that I had made on him. This is the note that he wrote to me:
You are a man who has felt deep sorrow yet has climbed high above it to reach a true satisfaction yet not a true happiness. You are sometimes righteous and pure but often mischievous and playful. You are very childlike but rarely childish. You enjoy hearing secrets yet are hard pressed to keep them. You are able to like and enjoy people even if they do not like you but there are times where you hate people for liking you.
You are eclectic and eccentric in thought, mind and idea. You are hungry for many things. You hunger for more knowledge of the world and of the universe, of the heavens and beyond. You hunger for true, honest and real love. You hunger for a soul quenching spiritual awakening.
You are a man who really does wish “joy to the World and peace on Earth” and quite often feels some sadness, regret and frustration that you, yourself, cannot be the bearer of such tidings. You sometimes feel angry because the world won’t let you change it.
You have so much to give to others. Knowledge to impart, love to give. You are able to raise the spirit of others and to give them confidence. You are a man of great wisdom, you are an old soul.
You have high morals and you are a man of integrity and you do not judge others. However you view with impunity those whose moral compass is off. You are always the first to apologize, the first to forgive. You do not know what revenge is or how to be vindictive and you are unable to hold a grudge. Your thoughts and ideas mean more to you than monetary wealth for they are priceless.
You are a man of principal and will fight for what you believe even if you are the lone fighter. You will also fight for the rights of others. You are not afraid to stand alone in a crowd. You are a leader, a man of vision, a man of honor, a man of his word. You are an interesting man and a man of interest….
Making Virtue a Part of Your Life
Ivan Nikolayevitsh Panin, a Russian emigrant to the United States who achieved fame for claiming to have discovered numeric patterns in the text of the Hebrew and Greek Bible and for his published work based on his subsequent research, is quoted as having said, “As you do not sweeten your mouth by saying honey, so you do not grow virtuous by merely talking of virtue.” In other words, knowing what virtue is, and actually living a virtuous life are two different concepts. This is perhaps an important life lesson that was learned recently by Arthur C. Brooks, a contributing opinion writer, and the president of the American Enterprise Institute.
In an op-ed article in the 27 November 2014 online edition of The New York Times, Brooks recounts a trip that he made several years ago to Provo, Utah, to deliver a lecture at Brigham Young University. He recalls that he was sent home with a generous amount of souvenirs with the Brigham Young University (BYU) logo stamped on each. One of the gifts that he was presented with was a new briefcase which had the name of the university on the front. He admits that although he needed a new briefcase, “the logo gave me pause because it felt a little like false advertising for a non-Mormon to carry it.” Nevertheless, having been encouraged by his wife that his thoughts were laughable, he began using the briefcase and carried it with him on business trips. He further commented, “In airports, I quickly noticed that people would look at my briefcase, and then look up at me. I could only assume that they were thinking, “I’ve never seen an aging hipster Mormon before.”
Although he found this observance to be a bit humorous at first, he soon noticed that there was a major difference in his attitude and behavior. He stated,
I found that I was acting more cheerfully and courteously than I ordinarily would — helping people more with luggage, giving up my place in line, that sort of thing. I was unconsciously trying to live up to the high standards of Mormon kindness, or at least not besmirch that well-earned reputation. I even found myself reluctant to carry my customary venti dark roast, given the well-known Mormon prohibition against coffee.
Almost like magic, the briefcase made me a happier, more helpful person — at least temporarily.
However, it was not anything magical that Brooks found himself experiencing. What he was experiencing is what psychologists refer to as “moral elevation” or an emotional state where we begin to act virtuously when exposed to the virtues of others. The briefcase that Brooks had been given as a gift had a similar effect in that it reminded him of the virtuous qualities of his Mormon friends.
The New York Times article also points out, “We can be the passive beneficiaries of moral elevation. But we can actively pursue it as well by rejecting bad influences and seeking good ones. We can even create the circumstances for moral elevation ourselves.”
That is the very reason it is so important to remember that first impressions can and do make lasting impressions. We may often feel that nothing that we say or do really matters, but we will never know the influence that it has upon the life of another. Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Peter Carr on 19 August 1785, gave this sound counsel:
Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.
Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises, being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual.
As we strive to live a virtuous life, let us also be reminded of the words of Confucius who quipped, “Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.”