Learning Virtue Is Like Riding a Bike

Rhoda Janzen’s otherwise saintly Mennonite mother passed what Janzen calls “the Moses of all farts“ in front of the bundt pans at Kohl’s Department Store.  Janzen tells the story as she ponders the eternal question:  “How can [we] be both good and bad, both hurt and hurtful?”

“The answer is that none of us knows how… [or why]. All we can we agree on is the fact that the human condition is constituted by wild vacillations between altruism and [wickedness], between kindness and cruelty.  One moment we’re opening our hearts and our wallets to hurricane victims; the next we’re torturing prisoners of war and laughing about the photographs with our friends.

“Of course, when our badness breaks the law and infringes on the civil rights of others, we deserve incarceration, if only to keep folks safe from our depredations. But by and large most of our injurious actions do not break the law.  No, most of them create the kinds of hurt that are legal: deceptions, betrayals, infidelities.  And since even the most virtuous among us displays this [back-and-forth] morality, what if we agreed just to let people be who they are, since we can’t change them anyway?

“….I have come to believe that virtue isn’t a condition of character.  It’s an elected action.  It’s a choice we keep making, over and over, hoping that someday we’ll create a habit so strong it will carry us through our bouts of pettiness and meanness.”

Last week, I cleared this year’s favorite books off my end tables and added them to my bookshelves.  The process, for me, is a bit like when I sort old pictures–it takes longer than just picking them up and setting them down.  Most books evoke memories over which I linger.  Plus, when I read books, I put scraps of paper in pages I think are worth looking at again.  That makes picking up the book later an adventure of rediscovery.

Janzen’s book has scraps marking a  story about WWII vets (See 7/8/11 post: Love can move a fence:  recent wedding shows how); comments on creating a habit of virtue; and her mother’s recipe for Mennonite persimmon cookies.

Back to the habit of doing good:  We create this habit step-by-step, action-by-action, day-after-day.  We learn to be kind, honest, ethical, responsible, polite, respectful, generous and gracious by watching others and practicing these behaviors.  We experience rudeness or cruelty from others, and decide we don’t want to be like that.  We’re a victim of deceit, gossip, misperception, or duplicity, and choose not to behave that way towards others.  We practice being the people we want to be.

We choose to do good.  Each time we’re kind or ethical, responsible or polite, respectful, generous, or gracious, or exhibit similar traits, we build muscle memory–or habits–of virtue.

It’s like learning to ride a bicycle.  We try, fall off, then try again.  Eventually we develop muscle memory for riding and don’t have to think consciously about balancing, pedaling, or steering.  The behaviors are unconscious and we do them without thinking about them.

We still misjudge turns from time-to-time, skid on gravel, or hit a pothole.  We fall off our bike.  Usually we just get up, brush ourselves off and keep going.  Sometimes, though, injuries need to be fixed, apologies voiced, or damage paid for and repaired.  Even world-class professional cyclists still have accidents.

Life’s like that, too.  If we practice being good and virtuous people, it becomes an increasingly unconscious set of behaviors, just like riding a bike.  But like the cyclist, we still hit rough patches, make mistakes, and land in potholes bigger than we can manage.

Sometimes, when we fall off, we’re like Janzen’s mother at Kohl’s, and nothing too awful happens.  Other times, we hurt ourselves or others.  We need to heal wounds, repair relationships, make amends.  It always helps if we remember our common humanity and that each of us falls from time to time.

“How can [we] be both good and bad…?  None of us knows how.  All we can we agree on is [that it is] the human condition ….  Virtue is a choice we keep making, over and over, hoping that someday we’ll create a habit so strong it will carry us through.”

*Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home . Rhoda Janzen. Henry Holt and Company. 2009.

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