Canto II: Of Workers
February 16, 2007
At the Checkout Stand
February 23, 2007

Difficult. And I stare at the worn feet of a dull crucifix. And I promise yes, and deny no. And the day goes on if I do and if I don’t. But I am, regardless, a virtuous and wonderful individual.

There’s a horrible disconnect between being a virtuous person, apt to be generous and selfless, and one who is actively pursuing a virtuous life. A sermon recently inspired this thought, and is very much worth pursuing. The distinction was made—after a rousing recital of Baskin Robbins’ ice creaming sampling—between being and doing. We can vow to be virtuous, nice, loving, peaceful, and overall swell. But being is not sufficient. We must do.

Let me take this a step further. Humor me a moment and assume that being does not come before doing. We must do before we can be. I can’t say I am a virtuous person until I have begun to do virtuous things. Even then, the point at which I qualify for “virtuous” status is anyone’s guess; it’s all quite subjective.

Still, this doing-being dichotomy gets the juices flowing. I firmly agree with virtuosity as the consequent of doing virtuous things. But does this apply to everything in our lives? Do we always have to do before we can be?

I was born. Imagine that. Did I do anything to become human? Subconsciously, perhaps. Ok, maybe that was a bad example. How about my gender? Did I do anything to become a boy? I am a boy. I can say that with confidence. But I didn’t really do much to affect it. I can say, however, that others did. Some combination of my parents and God put that one in the works, and now I can say with surety that I am a boy.

What about intangible things? This, naturally, follows the “virtue” argument. If I am mean, it is because I say mean things, do mean things, or act in a way that is seen as mean. Subjective? Absolutely. Still, if the perception is made, there is a reason for it. On the other hand, there are disconnects and degrees of dissociation that can make subjective judgments like “virtuous” and “happy” have little to do with me at all. True, my actions inspire reactions constantly, but those reactions are ultimately unpredictable. If a person is having a rotten day because of something done to them, they carry a grudge and are generally annoyed. I might say something well-meant and have it received as an attack. They might classify me as mean, but I had little to do with the subjective judgment. Still, for a while, I’m mean.

In a round-about way, I’m trying to say this: we certainly cannot be without doing—either in a physical or non-physical sense. But, as humans are humans and are bound to misinterpret, judgments and classifications of being as following from what we do are sometimes unfair or inaccurate. To us, our intentions are important. But intentions, often far from the perception of other people, don’t figure in to our classifications. We are sometimes mean, even if we intended to help. Why? An action was taken, words were spoken, and the circumstances of each individual at a given point were interpreted in a given way, producing our judgments: mean, happy, peaceful, careful, wise, etc.

Where God comes into play is the recognition of intention. True, our friends, family, and peers might recognize us as virtuous in some ways. But God—or whatever one might call the higher power(s) that guide us—is the One who puts it all together: actions, thoughts, words, and heart. Unfortunately, human beings can’t see this in other people. At least not all of the time.

The admonition from all of this, I think, is to live purposefully. I’ve said it a thousand ways, I know, but it doesn’t hurt to say it one more way, does it? After all, I have fallen into the rut of “being” and not “doing.” I even separate the two, thinking that doing virtuous things is of a higher quality that being virtuous. Where I missed the boat, however, is seeing that I cannot be unless I do. While God might be the only One to see the doing, I still need to act, speak, think, write, whatever. This also forces me to remember that carrying a pious and virtuous front is by no means “being virtuous.” Everybody knows this at heart, but a gentle reminder from others sometimes destroys the growing fantasy that illusions can satisfy—both our fellow human beings, and the God who created us.

I’ll leave you with a story. Last night, I went to a Mardi Gras celebration at my church. As part of the festivities, there was a talent show—a collection of quirky talents that one might never see if Sunday mornings were their only exposure to the congregation. It was a lot of fun! My friends, knowing one of my more off-the-wall talents, goaded me into riverdancing for the partiers. While I always get nervous when this suggested, I ultimately enjoy the experience. This time, however, I had company. A fellow parishioner was also going to be dancing—Irish step dancing. Having taken lessons for close to a year, decked out in full Irish attire, and accompanied by authentic music, I instantly felt like I was entering a competition. Ridiculous, eh? But as the two of us talked about his dancing history, my competitive edge fell away. I told myself that I would simply enjoy the change to share my amateur riverdancing with the group. There was nothing they were expecting; the whole affair was supposed to be fun. So that’s what I tried to do.

I couldn’t help but think, however, that the aftermath was a bit awkward. The other dancer and I didn’t really talk, but I wanted very much to seem second to him. After all, I had no formal lessons, no real basis for my crazy obsession with Riverdance. All I could say for myself was that I watched the video over and over and over again. I was trying for humility, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. Admittedly, I also wanted to be seen as humble.

In the awkwardness, however, I think the humility became contrived. Or at least that’s what I feared. I truly did want people to know that I thought myself second to my fellow parishioner, that I was there to learn and enjoy. I wanted to recognize fully that my talent was of my own crazy creation and not buried in hours of training and effort. With each compliment I received, I gently pushed away; I felt that the compliments should be directed to the other gentleman, not myself. Forcing the weight of attention in his favor didn’t work, however. And, to my chagrin, the efforts at forcing a forced humility failed. Should I be surprised? Not at all. What I did affected how others perceived me; what others did also affected that perception. And, of course, circumstances beyond my control (the nature of the crowd, the feel and dynamic of the celebration, etc.) affected perceptions in a way I couldn’t have changed.

I guess the point is, I try too hard sometimes to be seen a certain way—to be seen as “being” a certain type of person. Ultimately, however, I know that I have to be confident in my own good intentions, act according to them, and be willing to work on things if intentions end up on the wrong side of the spectrum. Vowing to be virtuous is not what I should be concerned with; living according to a virtuous ethic is what should drive me. And, knowing that I am only human, I should be open to informing that ethic according to what “virtuous” means—in the only definition that matter, the one that comes from God.

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