Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Mother Named Me Virtue

My mom is a great gift-giver. Everything I learned about giving came from her. Growing up, Mom wouldn’t just buy a cool gadget or toy for us kids, she had to buy the coolest model on the market. We got the Light Bright with extra colors and our Rubik’s Cubes had stickers of funny faces, Lisa had the Simon Says with extra memory and Grant had the Tommy Turbo Driver with the early LCD screen. Even my Speak & Spell had like a laser-site on it for killing zombies or blinding bats...or something. It wasn’t that we were spoiled… okay, possibly we were spoiled rotten… but I think it was more that my Mom just wanted us to have the best. Her kitchen was like this oasis of sweets and yummy goodness too. You wanted ice cream you got a scoop with chocolate syrup and sprinkles. You wanted French toast you got a heaping plate full of whipped topping and sugary powder. Cookies in the little squirrel cookie-jar and cakes in the silvery tin, we nibbled with my mother’s sweet tooth all the way until we left for college, even then, return trips home for laundry were really all about raiding secret stashes in the pantry and fridge.
Birthdays were more adventures than parties. Getting together with cousins at water parks and pizza parlors, and on the way home, Mom used to write up scavenger hunts with impossible clues, all in cursive rhyme, leading us along hazardous sojourns throughout the house: Digging through the breadbox here, out to the barn under the woodpile there, finally leading us back home to where the greatest gift of all was waiting.
Christmases were stunning. Decorated trees and tinsel, halls decked with evergreen pine branches, red ribbons and old Burl Ives records spinning. I couldn’t possibly appreciate it as a boy, dizzy in the lights and carols, but now as a father, I see the work. I visibly wilt at the amount of work my Mom put in on a daily basis to be an outstanding Mother, and I just stand in disbelief.
But it wasn’t just the gifts, it was the words that went with them. For every Han Solo blaster or model train I tore through gift wrapping to unleash, there was a quiet word about sharing and gratitude. For every X-Wing Fighter or Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot Set I obliterated to the bone with lovely playing in the ways only a boy can, there was a whisper about compassion and honesty, patience and sincerity. Prayers really, looking back I see that now. The gift was really my Mother praying over me, showering me with love and goodness, teaching me how to be a man, a father, a lover of God.
Mom was subtle too, she knew how to work an idea into my mind like no other. One of the best gifts she ever got us were these wooden blocks with our names engraved on them we hung over our beds. Okay… it was the 70’s people, these things were in style… relatively, in style. But I still remember them to this day. My brother Grant, meaning “Great” and “Tall.” My sister Lisa, short for Elisabeth, meaning “God’s Promise.” And mine, Brian… well… Brian means “Strength in Virtue.”
But what in the world is virtue? I literally have spent years asking people this question. Do you know how few people in the world know what the word virtue means?
“Virtue means you are saving yourself for marriage, right?” Now you know what my students think. But a quick poll of co-workers reveal even more ignorance. “Virtue means ‘Not Real’ you know, like ‘Virtue Reality,’ or my favorite, “Virtue means boring.” Thanks, Helen.
But if your name meant ‘virtue’ don’t you think you would want to know what it means? And that I did, which lead me not to our modern times, but a look into the past. And you guessed it, virtue came from the Greeks.
The Greeks had a word for their central belief, called ‘Autarkeia’ or self-sufficiency (autocracy), which was a central part of the Greek State. The hero is moved toward acts of heroism not out of a sense of duty toward others but to himself. He strives after this excellence, or ‘Arete’ which is translated into English as ‘virtue.’ This is his moral authority. Poets for centuries have tried to teach these: the beauty of Justice, the dangers of ambition, the folly of violence. It has been passed down through time. This idea: when a man did wrong, he knew he did wrong.
This is virtue, an absolute moral law.
But ain’t nobody want to hear that, man!
By the end of the 5th century in Greece all of it changed. You ask a Greek after the Peloponnesian War what was virtue and he would pull a Bill Clinton, “Well, that all depends upon what you mean by virtue? Heh Heh Heh…”
Enter Socrates, who gave up the speculations of science and physics as fruitless and asked the important metaphysical question, “How are we to live?” because he really didn’t know. You see, no one in Athens could give him a definition of any moral or intellectual virtue. He then went on a search for virtue as an unassailable form of logic, which caused too much trouble when others started questioning everything, and eventually hemlock was put in his Kool-Aid.
Plato came next, and in his Republic we see his insistence on training individuals in knowledge of ethics so that they can train others. But lesser men came after, and the ideals were lost.
The Greeks returned to the ways of Zeus, debauchery, depravity, and worse, the ‘Sophist’ which would be the equivalent of our politicians today, paid hired-guns in the pockets of lobbyists who act as traveling ‘professors’ whose art is rhetoric and persuasion rather than truth.
“I mean, it all depends upon which ‘truth’ you adhere to, doesn’t it? Heh Heh Heh...”
Thus, history repeats, and we see the big hot mess those guys caused today.
So all the more reasons to get back to virtue, which is now defined by its splinters rather than one universal law, but take a look at some of these words here, and hopefully see yourself: Awareness, Flexibility, Candor, Loyalty, Altruism, Fairness, Reverence, Enthusiasm, Restraint, Forgiveness, Humor, Compassion, Honesty, Fortitude, Courage, Patience, Silence, Pity, Thoughtfulness, Sincerity, Diligence, Creativity, Wit, Hospitality.
If years of teaching has taught me anything, it’s that not everybody had a Mom like me. That’s for sure. Because my Mother was all of those things, on a daily basis. She was virtue to me, and Mom got her belief from one place, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with faith.” -2 Peter, 1:5.
So yes, my mother could have named me Gabriel (God is my strength… cool) or Jack (Supplanter…. Ewww!) or perhaps Patrick (Noblemen… whatever), but she didn’t. She gave me a name that was a journey. She must have known I would spend a life searching for its meaning. She must have known it would take me all around the world, to walk in the footsteps of the world’s greatest artists and thinkers, to finally find what she had shown me all along. That virtue was here, right back at home, waiting for me.
Thank you Mom, for my name, and the greatest gift of all.

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