I don’t have a lot of hobbies or interests per se, but one of my favorite things to do is read. I was fortunate enough to have been born to a mother who is an avid reader and a regular devourer of books, who instilled in me a deep passion for the written word. One day, I hope to pass this love of books onto my son (I’m waiting for the day he can start to sit up by himself. Then the fun begins!).
After the vast number of books that I have read since I was old enough (in the thousands by this point?) in all honesty, I can’t tell you offhand what my favorite book is. “It just… depends.” I recently read a joke online that asking someone who loves to read what their favorite book is is like asking a parent who their favorite child is. They probably don’t (or shouldn’t?) have a ready response. In any case, though I do enjoy a novel, my heart belongs to non-fiction, particularly
autobiographies. There’s a unique feeling when you get to experience vicariously re-living someone else’s life, knowing what the end result is, but picking up new and fascinating bits of personal information on the way. Whether it was when I read Nelson Mandela’s “The Long Walk to Freedom,” or Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” there is still a part of me that finds a certain fascinating characteristic or quality in the author and his/her main idea(s) that I ultimately take away from the book.
One fascinating figure in history indeed is Benjamin Franklin. Though I grew up knowing about him and superficial facts about his life as one of the founding fathers of the United States, many small but important details were unknown to me until recently. One of these is that he was such a gifted writer and was constantly trying to improve himself, through his multiple resolutions in the pursuit of “moral perfection.”
One of these resolutions took place in the form of what he called his “13 Virtues.” They were as follows:
- “Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
- “Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
- “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
- “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
- “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
- “Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
- “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
- “Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
- “Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.”
- “Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
- “Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
- “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
Now while some of these virtues don’t really apply in my case, I still think that there is undoubtedly something to be learned here. After all, I believe that we as humans are distinct from so many types of animals because we have the keen and unique ability to adapt ourselves to our environment and to evolve. Evolution is a better and more complex change which has indeed set us apart, but whether the need for it be intrinsic or extrinsic, it takes a diligent commitment over time.
More than 200 years after Mr. Franklin decided to endeavor to better himself through his thirteen virtues, I too wish to do the same. Thirteen seems a bit ambitious, but after giving it some thought, I’ve created this list of 10 virtues for myself:
1. Patience – (In this case, towards others) I may or may not have given myself ulcers while playing the waiting game here time and again in South America, a region of the world that is not exactly known for its efficiency. It’s mostly over petty stuff, but it truly drives me bonkers. No, there really is no good reason to spend 30+ minutes waiting to check out of a supermarket, but if it’s not an imminent life or death situation, well, I’ll have to stop checking my watch every 20 seconds and calm the mess down. Which leads me to my next virtue….
2. Acceptance – I hope to do a better job of accepting a circumstance knowing that if I did not cause it, I cannot change it, and I cannot control it, I just have to let it go. The world will keep spinning, whether or not I continually meditate on it. The virtue of acceptance goes hand in hand with…
3. Self-Acceptance– I’m not perfect and never will be (there, I said it). I don’t see myself as being a super-mom who maintains an immaculately clean house, a Hollywood-worthy “post-baby bod” (*gag*), who can seem to perfectly balance a glamorous career and home life, and always has a good hair day. I’m a quirky teacher who is the epitome of the absent-minded professor, I’m overweight, I bite my nails, my hair is always in a ponytail, and my husband is better at keeping the house clean than I am. But I acknowledge that that does not define who I am or even most of what I am. It doesn’t make me bad or inferior, just human. I want to teach my son to be a strong and confident person who is loves himself, but this will require a strong and confident mommy who is proud of who loves herself. Sometimes this means practicing another virtue, namely…
4. Be True to Myself – As Pablo Picasso once said, “There are two kinds of women- goddesses and doormats.” I’m undoubtedly guilty of being the latter, compromising what I want in order to appease others, and being non-confrontational to an alarming fault. I’m stuck in “nice girl” mode, which doesn’t necessary sound like something that needs to be worked on, but is when you consider the number of times that I’ve crumpled and fallen into a depressive state after holding back from sharing what I felt were valuable opinions, shutting up out of fear of what others might think of me, and putting up with shitty people who were takers, users, and abusers. There is very little fun or glory in being a martyr (or a victim for that matter), and it does a number on your self-esteem over time, which is no easy task to repair. At almost 30, I have to tell myself that being assertive is not being aggressive, and being a “bitch” is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you have to do for yourself and take time for yourself, for purposes like the need to…
5. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle – A healthy body is said to equal a healthy mind. I admit, I don’t exercise as much as I should, and if nobody is looking, I’m much more likely to devour a Starbucks muffin the size of my head than a piece of fruit in a moment of frustration and stress. But I know that the solution is just getting back on the healthy horse. Self scolding and beating myself up after the fact does not cancel out what I’ve done, it just makes it worse over time. This was especially true during the 7+ years that I suffered from bulimia. Equally important to note that being skinny does not necessarily equate to being healthy. I was literally half my size and weight at this time 10 years ago, and had to be hospitalized for the scary damage that I was doing to my body and to my mind. There’s no clever connection to my next virtue, but here it is…
6. Practice Realistic Optimism – The world can be a scary place for a million and one reasons. On the other hand, I’ve seen it be a place where I’ve been helped out by total strangers and been subjected to random acts of kindness that took me by surprise. I’m no Pollyanna and have no desire to be, the world is far from perfect, and for better or worse, anything has the capacity to change in an instant, but I’ve got a lot going for me. Which is incidentally a great transition for another virtue!…
7. Live in the Present – I’ve lived in the past lamenting what “shoulda coulda woulda” been, and have also lived in the future in futile and fearful anticipation with a case of the “what ifs.” It exhausts me and I can’t enjoy what’s happening now in the present. This will help keep me focused on what matters most, which means that I also need to…
8. Prioritize – Ask most anyone, and they can assure you that there are not enough hours in the day, and there are times when some items on your agenda are not going to make the cut. I consider myself a hard worker, but have had to realize that “stuff” and “money” and prestige comes and goes, but core factors like family, love, friends, and health are what ultimately matter. I’ll have to keep this in mind as a new mother returning to work in a short while. Being hardworking and ambitious are virtues in themselves, but not if I am going to make myself sick, which is related to the next virtue…
9. Tranquility (a.k.a.- Chillax!) – I’ve got a rather exaggerated “Type A” personality. I thrive and experience a certain high when I accomplish a lot. I become a miserable person to be around when I feel like “I’m losing time” and not being “efficient.” I once had a Freudian slip with a psychologist who asked me in my own words what the opposite of “omnipotent” was. Without missing a beat, I blurted out “laziness” (yeah, I’ve got issues). While I can’t fully embrace the art of doing nothing and relaxing, I have respect and see the need for it. I can’t be perpetually “on” or I’ll make myself sick. Which leads me to the final virtue of…
10. Balance/Moderation – This is a biggie for me. The need for moderation manifests itself in many ways, particularly in my vices- in how I eat, sometimes in how I spend money, and how I pursue different goals, with an “all or nothing” mentality that sets me up to fail time and again. Extremity and impulsiveness are appealing to someone with a personality like mine, but nine times out of ten, they leave me in over my head and unwell. Moderation and balance- they are all vital, they all go together, they are what I need to pursue above all else.
And that concludes my 10 virtues (for now at least). Putting them into practice on a daily basis in the long run is going to be a struggle, but it’s a noble pursuit that I at least want to attempt.
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” –Dr. Seuss