Perfectly Yourself; 9 Lessons for Enduring Happiness
By Matthew Kelly
I admire people for so many different reasons. I admire people who take care of themselves physically, because I know how hard it is to do that. Some people make the excuse that it doesn't come naturally to them. I don't think a finely tuned body comes naturally to anyone. When I watch the Olympics and I see the athletes' extraordinary bodies, I know that they are the result of extraordinary discipline, and I admire that.
I admire great talent. Musicians, artists, writers, actors, athletes, teachers, scientists, and spiritual leaders, all exercising their talents on an extraordinary level, fascinate me, and I admire that.
I admire the building of great businesses and wealth. It is something that has intrigued me from a very young age. Many of my best friends are business leaders and entrepreneurs, and I often marvel at the way their minds work. I also admire people who have worked hard all their lives, saved hard, invested wisely and consistently, and amassed a small fortune. I admire that.
But over the years in my personal reflection, I have constantly asked myself: What do I respect? And at a deep level, I think there is only one thing I truly and deeply respect over and over again in time, and that is virtue. I respect virtue. Virtue inspires me. Virtue in other people challenges me. Virtue raises me up. Virtue allows me to catch a glimpse of what is possible. Virtue gives me hope for the future of humanity.
When I see virtue in the life of a man or woman, my first response is to want to spend more time with that person. But I have also noticed that there are times when people of virtue repel me. There are times when I avoid them. On reflection, I realize that it is at these times that I am neglecting the call to progress, have stopped along the way to indulge in some self-destructive behavior or another, and their mere presence challenges me to get back on the path and embrace my authentic self.
The thing that strikes me most about people of virtue, genuine virtue, is that whether I like them or dislike them as individuals, whether I agree with them or disagree with them ideologically, I cannot help but respect them.
Character is built one habit at a time. Good character is built one virtue at a time. Virtue is a good habit, a habit that leads us to become the-best-version-of-ourselves. The cornerstone of character is virtue.
Character is at the very core of our happiness. Patient people are more likely to experience enduring happiness than impatient people. Generous and grateful people are more likely to create sustainable happiness in their lives than those who are ungrateful and greedy. I have never met people with unforgiveness in their heart who were truly and deeply happy. People who can forgive are happier than those who hold grudges and harbor unforgiveness. The gentle seem more likely to experience happiness than the rough and angry. Moderation is a more likely path to enduring happiness than gluttony and lust. Kindness will bring us a happiness that will outshine the pleasure of self-indulgence every time.
Ask yourself these simple questions: Would you rather live next door to a man who is kind and thoughtful or to a man who is mean and self-centered? Would you rather work for a woman who is honest and caring or for a woman who is dishonest, conniving, and uncaring? Would you rather be married to someone who is grateful, patient, and generous or to someone who is ungrateful, impatient, and self-seeking? Would you rather have friends with integrity or friends who cannot be trusted to do as they say they will do?
I would rather be surrounded by virtuous people, because their joy for life and their virtue are contagious. Their mere presence helps me to become the-best-version-of-myself.
Our culture has reduced all virtue to the universal virtue of niceness, which is no virtue at all. People comment, "Oh, she is such a nice woman" or "He is such a nice man," which in essence very often means that this man or woman never says or does anything to upset the person making the comment, never ruffles any feathers, never challenges anyone to rise to greater virtue. In a way this person is a nonperson who is admired for being so-for not getting in the way. I hope nobody who knows me ever describes me as "nice" in this context. I hope to upset the people around me occasionally, to rattle them from time to time, to challenge them in ways that make them feel uneasy. For if I do not from time to time cross the line of niceness with the people close to me, then I am almost certainly not the son, brother, friend, employer, colleague, citizen, or man that I aspire to be.
Love makes demands upon us. To love someone means that from time to time you will be required by that love to tell someone something that they would rather not hear. Forthrightness is one of the fundamental elements of healthy relationships, and yet most people lack the virtue to challenge the people they claim to love in this way. The most obvious example of this is in modern parenting. Many parents seem more interested in being a friend to their children than in being a parent. Their children don't need another friend; they need their parents. In seeking this acceptance and approval from their children, many parents shrink back from the corrective element of parenting and do not serve as a guide to their children.
I see a similar situation often among high school teachers who shirk the responsibility entrusted to them in the area of discipline, merely to be popular with their students.
We have mistaken niceness for virtue. Niceness is not virtue.
As I travel the world speaking to audiences, I get the growing sense that people feel that something is missing. For a time many of us sensed that something was simply missing in our lives as individuals. But of late, it seems more and more people are awakening to the fact that something is missing in society on a larger scale. Though most are unable to articulate it, more and more people are filled with the sense that we have collectively lost or forgotten something.
They are right. We have lost something. We did leave something behind. In our obsession with change, we overlooked the fundamental truth that progress is change that makes our lives and society better. Our lives genuinely improve in a way that can be sustained only when we grow in virtue. Individual virtues are the bricks that build character, and character is the backbone of all authentic progress for individuals, communities, cultures, and societies.
What do I respect? I respect virtue. What do you respect?
Are You Trustworthy?
If it is virtue that causes our lives and society to improve, then we must ask the question "What does it mean to be virtuous?" Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, "No virtue is more universally accepted as a test of good character than trustworthiness." First and foremost, to be a man or woman of virtue is about honesty and truth, honesty with self and others, and an insatiable hunger to know and live truth.
Rigorous honesty and love of truth in turn give birth to integrity. Honesty means that we can be taken at our word and that what we say can be trusted. Integrity means that we can be relied on to do what we say we will do. Together, honesty and integrity make us worthy of trust-trustworthy. As George Washington once said, "I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all lilies, the character of the 'Honest Man.' "
But honesty is no easy feat today. It seems that we celebrate an honesty of convenience, in which a certain amount of lying and deception is deemed necessary. We are honest when it doesn't cost us anything, but the moment we are called on to sacrifice something to be honest, we abandon this virtue.
We are taught honesty of convenience in many ways from a very early age. I remember that when I was a child, my older brothers would take us to the movies. lust before we went to buy our tickets, they would tell me how old I was that day. If I was eleven but there was a child's price for children ten and younger, then I automatically became ten. It's a small thing, but it is dishonest, and children learn such lessons very quickly.
Little by little this honesty of convenience has crept into our lives and become an accepted norm in our society. Rigorous honesty is a very hard thing to find.
But if we are being dishonest with others, we are also being dishonest with ourselves. The external reality is an expression of the internal reality: We must lie to ourselves before we lie to anyone else. And that is a betrayal of self.
The first step is to be honest with ourselves, but we willingly and consciously deceive ourselves in so many ways. We tell ourselves that we have to do what we do, that there are no other options. We tell ourselves that we have to live where we live. We tell ourselves that if our spouse wasn't the way he or she is, then we wouldn't be in the place we are emotionally. We tell ourselves that our partner will change. We tell ourselves that we have to feel what we are feeling. If we are victims of anything, we are victims of our own self-deception.