Fully Human: Grandparents, Childhood, and the importance of Character

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As a young boy my family made the move from Powell River to Nanaimo, leaving behind my cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.  Because they were still there, there was no better place for me to spend a long weekend while I was growing up than in Powell River. I especially loved sleeping over at my grandparents’ house as it meant:  homemade bread, lots of junk food, and as much King-Cole-brand Orange Pekoe tea as a guy could drink (yes I’ve always been the teatotaler that I am today).

A visit to my grandparents also inevitably involved participating in their Sunday morning routine:  It began with attendance at Westview Baptist’s early church service, followed by a trip to the extended care wing of the hospital to serve the patients their lunch, continued with back-to-back half hour episodes of “Router Workshop” on HGTV back at my grandparents, and finally concluded with a trip to “Mr. Mikes” for lunch.

As a kid I never looked forward to the extended care visits.  Most of the patients were in the last stages of life and had a variety Imageof disabilities:  some were lame, deaf, mute, and lots were all of the above.  Many had advance Alzheimer’s or Dementia and as a result could not communicate in a lucid manner.  I remember trying to not get too close to the patients.  I remember hoping they wouldn’t make eye contact.  I remember sticking close to my grandparents, letting them do the talking and wishing that I would be able to leave without having to say anything.  And this is to be expected.  After all, I was just a kid right?  I had a poor night’s sleep from staying up too late watching TV, I was cranky from getting up too early and eating too much junk food, and I was hungry.  The last place I wanted to be was in that place.

The matter was significantly different for my grandparents, however.  They interacted with the patients with compassion and tenderness. They spoke to them as valuable human beings and in doing so afforded them the full dignity that they were worth.  For my grandparents, these were not patients worthy of pity or fear but human beings who also happened to be old friends or co-workers, or fellow church members.  My grandparents knew their names and knew most of their life stories.  My grandparents actually loved them.

I contrast the type of visitor I was with the type of visitor my grandparents were in order to make a very important point:  ethical living requires more than just doing the right thing, it also involves being the right kind of person.

At a surface level there is no difference between my boyhood self and my grandparents.  We both did the exact same things.  However if you were a patient in the extended care wing, you would certainly be able to feel a drastic difference between the two.  This difference comes down to motivation and character. I after all was there solely out of obligation and my grandparents were there because of sincere care.  In the world of ethics, moral thinking centred on character is called virtue theory.  In virtue theory, the primary question is “what kind of person am I” instead of “what should I do”.  In this way of thinking a person is to embody positive traits of character called virtues and are to avoid negative traits of character called vices.

I believe that this is the type of morality that Jesus is most concerned about.  The gospels record case after case of Jesus’ frustration with people who were so fixated on following the rules and “doing the right thing” but who failed to be good people.  Jesus once famously remarked to a group of religious leaders that their neglect of character and fixation on following the rules made them guilty of straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel.  Jesus spells it out for us and my grandparent’s lives bear witness to the wisdom of his teaching.  For their faithfulness in not just doing but also being, I will always be grateful…

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The Heart of the Matter II: Those good ol’ fashioned values

I’ve decided to modify my approach and defer “I/Thou” to Part III since I think a more basic issue needs to be discussed first.  In Part I, I mentioned that forgiveness is a virtue–however it occurred to me that although many have a vague understanding of  “virtue” its technical or more nuanced form remains unexplained and so unknown.  For this reason I present a brief sketch of virtue theory.

Broadly speaking there are two types of ethical theories–theories of obligation such as utilitarianism (i.e. we ought to do what causes the most happiness) and virtue theory.  In contrast to theories of obligation, virtue theory assesses morality on the grounds of character.  There are two types of character traits:  virtue and vice.  Virtue are those character traits which allow one to fulfill their function in a society and are often found between two opposing destructive character traits called vices.

In the case at hand forgiveness can be seen as the trait which falls between being a “push over” and holding a grudge.  It is this type of thinking that leads to pop-philosophy like “everything in moderation”.

Because virtues are seen as character traits they are things to be practiced habitually.  Thus the virtuous person is the one who consistently models positive character traits as often as the situation calls for it.  Forgiveness is therefore not a one and done action but a habit practiced so often that it becomes a part of a person’s character.

Traditionally another significant component of virtue theory is what in the “olden days” was called telos.  Telos is a Greek word which refers to the purpose of life.  In the context of virtue theory this means that virtues are those character traits which when practiced allow the individual or group to fulfill their function/purpose in society.  Christians identify their telos as bringing reconciliation (forgiveness) to all spheres of life:  with God, other people, and with the physical environment.  Forgiveness is therefore an intrinsic and signficant virtue in the Christian life.

One of the more troubling points of Virtue Theory is the role of the community.  Because it is so rooted in fulfilling function, Virtue Theory requires people to view themselves as existing as a part of a whole rather than as an isolated individual free to do as they please.  This point will be addressed in more detail in part III

Community dovetails nicely into another aspect of virtue theory:  narrative.  Narratives are stories which a community (family, country, church, religion, etc) tells which shape life goals, attitudes, priorities, etc.  What one sees as virtuous thus largely depends on the type of story being told.  From a Christian perspective the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection causes forgiveness to be seen as one of the supreme virtues.

A final significant aspect of Virtue theory is its emphasis on the particular.  Unlike obligatory theories which stress a more or less cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach, virtue theory has much greater flexibility.  Although virtue theory maintains that the virtues should be practiced constantly, the form they take changes greatly depending on the situation.  For example we can imagine how practicing the virtue of generosity can look differently depending on your class/age/situation:  as a child you may share a toy, as a student your time, and as a wealthy person you may share your riches.  In each situation the act is different but the virtue remains the same.  With forgiveness this is also true.  We can imagine, for example, how forgiving someone for cutting us off on the road may look different from more extreme situations like forgiving someone of physical abuse.