Why do people exalt virtues? Is it because in reality, such qualities are scarce? We give merit to concepts like love and courage, as if by default, men and women were born selfish and cowardly. Yet who hasn’t fallen in love, or felt a surge of fearlessness in his or her life? Even the foulest villains, or the people we despise most, have at one point in time experienced these emotions. Arguably, some even dare to perform their dastardly actions because of these very traits. So let me ask you, what separates true love from falling in love, true bravery from mere boldness?
Virtues, I believe, are the product of a conscious choice. The rest are simply emotions. Yet people confuse the two, equating emotions with virtues. We claim we’re in love with someone when we get that giddy feeling inside. Once the flame’s gone, we’re tempted to break off the relationship. When we face a great challenge in life, be it from a physical, mental, or spiritual source, one of our initial reactions is fear. Some people will say to themselves that they’re not brave or courageous, simply because of the emotion they’re feeling.
To subscribe to such a belief undermines one of the benefits of human existence: free will. If we were merely creatures who acted upon our emotions, then humanity would be reduced to a science, a field of study in which behavior is determined by the laws of causality. A ball, for example, has no free will. It goes where we lead it, and follows the direction of the force exerted upon it. The same goes for objects. Animals, to a certain extent, follow the same rules. They are creatures that obey instinct and feeling, and it is for this reason that animals are trainable. If they were so free from their desires, then the reward-and-punishment system of training wouldn’t be so effective. Yet animals have more will compared to objects. Some animals, for example, are not trainable, and there will always be that small part of trained animals that remains unpredictable, or will break the norm. If we simply followed every urge we felt, then I dare say that animals are more human than us because even they don’t always give in to impulse.
Another reason why conscious choice is important is because of the element of difficulty. In a war, we expect well-trained soldiers to lay their lives in battle. However, we do not have the same expectations for civilians, people who do not have the proper training. The former are conditioned to face combat so many times that when they hear shots being fired, there is still fear, but it is quickly suppressed because of prior experience. The latter, on the other hand, might panic when they hear a warning shot. So in face of danger, which do you think is more likely to enter the fray of battle? The former, but if the latter does it, some perceive it as a form of heroism, because it simply was more difficult for the latter.
Or to put it in another way, which do you think will make more of a sacrifice if they are asked to lay down their life in order to save several people? A suicidal man who has nothing to live for, or a family man who has a family and friends he loves? The value of virtue is not always whether you do it or how often you do it, but what it costs you to do it. A person who enters the fray of battle and does not fear for his life is well and good. It would be more difficult though for someone who felt fear, and had to conquer his weakness. I’m not disputing that the former was brave, but the latter exhibited more courage, not because he was immune to fear, but because he felt it and acted despite that feeling.
A question you might ask is what use is all of this to me? So I’ve differentiated virtue from emotion, so what? It’s been my experience that people use emotion as an excuse not to do what they’re supposed to do, or utilize it as a license to do what one shouldn’t. For example, many so-called writers claim that they only write when inspiration strikes them. If that were the case, then everyone would be writers. I mean who wouldn’t write if they were inspired? But the reality is that a lot of writers write, no matter what they’re feeling. I approve of inspiration. Many masterpieces are borne out of epiphanies. Yet a lot of classics were born not out of divine providence but sheer hard work. I guess that’s one benefit of pursuing a career in a field you love, be it drawing, writing, or any other craft: you’re forced to do it no matter what you’re feeling. I mean in school, when my teacher asks me to submit a term paper, I don’t use the excuse “I’ll write it when I’m inspired”. If you must do it with inspiration, then there are techniques to find inspiration, whether it’s research, or letting yourself be engulfed by new experiences. Another example is divorce. While there are many good reasons to file a divorce, some terminate the relationship because they don’t feel anything anymore. While I’m not married, I know that love is far from mere emotion. Why do I love my parents, and why do they love me? I stopped being cute and cuddly when I turned four. And my parents are far from the most amiable of people, at least to me. Yet we love each other nonetheless, through good times and bad times. It’s not a feeling, it’s a commitment. People are surprised when parents abandon their child, or when children leave their parents. It just goes to show that relationships are a choice. We may not choose who our parents are, but we can always choose to leave them. Or not. And while our parents might feel duty-bound to take care of us, they honestly don’t have to, and there will inevitably be a time when they must let go and allow their children to fend for themselves. Why not sooner, right?
Virtues are about choices. Emotions might influence how we make our choices, but in the end, it’s our free will that determine that paths we take. Sometimes, it’s good to give in to emotions. When you’ve been burned by touching a hot stove, you’d be a fool not to move your hand away. It’s also due to emotions that artists are able to create their most magnificent works, allowing their experiences to affect their creations. But there will always be times when we must resist our initial drives, when we must conquer our passions. If I ran from every experience that brought fear or discouragement, then I would never grow. If I succumbed to my fear of drowning, then I would never have learned to swim. If I gave in to laziness, I would never write.
The beauty of this fact is that it gives us hope. When we look at our country and see the bleakness of it all, that’s not our consciousness talking but our emotions. It’s easy to see things as they are, to succumb to pessimism. To anyone who’s renovated a home, you’ll know that sometimes, what you start out with is a piece of trash. It has lots of potential, but until that possibility is harnessed, the place just looks like any other home or warehouse, albeit without the niceties. What eventually turns it into a magnificent place is the work and effort put into it. You didn’t say hey, this place looks bad, let’s move on to a better house. What you said was this place doesn’t look good, but it can change: it has potential. So when it’s finally remodeled, it’s the best area to live in. For me, this country is like that. We need lots of work, yet it all begins with a decision. I’ll admit, it’s a choice that more than one person needs to make, but a conversion is always possible. And perhaps that is our one source of hope. No matter how corrupt or criminal or dishonest our country becomes, it just needs a collective decision to make it a better place. And believing in that, my friend, takes love, courage, and all the other virtues you can think of.