Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Silence As Virtue?

My mom always said that to me when I was little. "Silence, baby," she would say, "is a virtue." That was my cue to pack up my noise and ship it elsewhere. In hindsight, I could have answered with 'patience is a virtue', but that likely would have resulted in collecting a righteous return on my bottom so it's probably better I just clammed up.
When I was very small I didn't even know what a 'verchoo' was. I had a faint idea that it had something to do with the Mary statue in church, but that theory was disproven when I learned to spell. Turned out, she was not the 'verchoon mother' I once thought she was. When I realized my mistake, I didn't want to publicize the gap in my knowledge by asking what a virtue was, especially since I'd, many times, nodded in agreement when I was told about this virtue or that. So onward I went, stoicly carrying a desire to have these oft-talked-about virtues even though I didn't know what they were. (This was oddly similar to my desire, later in life, to have 'vander-built' jeans, even though I didn't know why it mattered who built them.)
I was in a fourth grade class when I finally learned what a virtue was, from a nun who clearly hadn't acquired the 'patience' one. She gave a lecture on the seven virtues: chastity, temperence, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. Finally satisfied! I knew what a virtue was. In essence, this was a fancy word with many meanings that could be expressed in its simplest form as 'good'. Patience is good, kindness is good, etc. etc. etc. Grown ups, I said to myself not for the first or last time, make things so complicated. I didn't think more about it for a very long time.
In high school, the lecture on virtues was repeated, this time by a most unassuming, soft-spoken nun who I've come to believe had acquired all of the Christian virtues. Her name was Sister Humiliata, naturally. She talked about how the process of acquiring virtues was not to be viewed as a triumph of the individual but as a gift of spirit to others. Very interesting. Unfortunately, I was sixteen and couldn't dwell on the importance of that message for too long. My hair required much more devotion than my spirit.
The lesson lingered though and recently the concept of virtue has come back to me, along with my mother's wry take on the most important of these to her - silence. I've mulled the healthcare debate, the economic crisis, the war strategies - everything - with this idea of the virtues.
And what I've come to is this: there are many different collections of virtues based on religion, culture and philosphies. They are all worthy of some study. But more importantly, they are all worthy of action. The virtues, the ones that work best for each of us, should serve as the standards by which we approach the big problems facing our country and our world.
In my case, I imagine the good that would come from a little 'Patience' in foreign relations. Add some 'Kindness' to that. Many civilizations believe 'Mercy' to be a virtue. Certainly in health care it must be so. And blessed be the Romans who added 'Humor' to the list. You couldn't watch one session of congressional debate without it. Learn from our Hindu friends that 'Reverence for Earth' is most definitely a virtue.
And what of silence? Is it a virtue? You could argue that it is not. You could hold that silence - in the face of deafening world hunger, poverty, suffering -is the cruelest of all the sins. Silence sent us to war. Silence can mean pain when what is called for is a loud cry. I wouldn't argue against that. But then, silence also offers something else - opportunity. When you stop speaking, you can listen. When you turn down the noise, you can think. Silence offers respite, serenity. And from that place you can wonder more honestly, perhaps more innocently. See a people filled with respect, honesty, wisdom - all virtues - and work toward a world community centered on justice and peace. Serve with honor, speak with restraint and work diligently. Offer a humble soul. Silence is a virtue, I agree. And in my quiet, this is the world I see.

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