Virtue, in its Greek root arete, means excellence. It is a perfection, especially a perfection of the human soul. It indicates a refinement of something that was previously of lesser quality. But now, through a process of overcoming difficulty through effort and struggle, the soul takes on a higher quality. It is elevated and excels others. It takes for granted that life, we, involves suffering, that we are not perfect, but rather are always ‘in process’.
This insight illustrates something that is often taught in movies, and many of us know from real life: difficulties, struggles, challenges, resistance – however you want to name them – are not simply helpful or useful in improving ourselves, they are essential. The challenges and difficulties we suffer are the necessary conditions for the possibility to grow in virtue.
So does this mean that if we want to grow in virtue – to become the men that we know deep down that we are called to be – we should seek out challenges and face them head on, rather than seek comfort and avoid them? Simple answer: yes; yes, we should.
We are, in fact, inclined or disposed by our human nature to seek this growth. This desire for challenge and overcoming it as a means for growth in virtue is something that burns within our make up as men. It is a drive, a hunger, a calling. It is manifest in our enthusiasm for competition, whether athletics (both playing and watching), video games, epic stories, or the world of business and finance. Acedia, a Latin word for a hatred of the good (and ultimately God) that arises from the difficulty of pursuing it, is a corruption or perversion of this drive. It is the desire for growth and virtue utterly defeated. Yet, considered in itself, this desire is a good thing: we are disposed to grow.
We must, however, always remember that our goal should be worthy of our effort.
I want, for instance, to spread the gospel more effectively. To this end, I want to be a better writer. Now, I usually write for academic circles. I spend a lot of time looking up citations and doing research and so on. It’s a lot of time on the computer. But I have noticed, in teaching my first grader, that my ability to actually write with pen and pad has seriously atrophied. It’s not just the physical capability. I have always had chicken-scratch handwriting. Now the biggest challenge is that I simply don’t have the patience to write this way. My will has atrophied, like a sallow broken leg in a caste.
So here I am. I am forcing myself to write (the first draft, at least) on good old pen and paper before I touch the computer. I am writing for a different audience about difficulties and virtue and growth. This process alone makes me collect my thoughts differently and more intentionally. It makes me check myself, to minimize jargon. And it makes me struggle with the challenge of reading my own handwriting.
I am trying something different because it is difficult; doing a hard thing because it is hard.
Like you, I want to be excellent. I want to be virtuous. I wanted my soul to be refined. I want to better live out my calling as a Catholic Christian husband, father, and friend. So here in the little things in life, I am starting to embrace the hard things, not flee from them, because they are hard, because they are good for me.
This is the reason that I did Exodus 90. And it’s the reason that I did Exodus 90 again, once I saw how badly I did it the first time; how far from excellent I was on prayer, fraternity and asceticism. But this second time around, I am running to them, and embracing them. In turn, they have been liberating: “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” (Mt 11:30). My brotherhood and accountability with the other men in the group, forged in shared suffering and offered in sacrifice for the sake of something beyond ourselves, has taught me to strive mightily in the face of difficulties, even little ones, like cold showers or waking up early to pray and exercise; to embrace the challenges that purify us, both in ourselves and in relation to each other. There clearly is a long way to go on this journey of discipline, but now I know that liberty and excellence–virtue–comes from the hard thing done well, all through the grace of God.
What are the little things in your life that are hard? What challenges do you know deep down that you are being called to ‘take up arms and oppose them’?
No challenge is too small for a man seeking excellence. Every difficulty is an opportunity to grow more virtuous, whether it is not hitting the snooze button, making eye contact with a stranger and smiling, changing a dirty diaper, applying for a job, public speaking or dealing with the death of a loved one. Virtue is forged primarily in the kiln of the mundane, everyday challenge: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.”(Lk 16:10).
To live is to suffer, that’s for sure. But to live well, to suffer for the sake of something noble –something good true and beautiful–is to see that the stones that life throws at us are really just the Creator laying out a path through the desert, making straight the path to help us “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)