Monday, August 09, 2021

"Little Virtues"

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.     ~Proverb of unknown origin

Much of what passes for common sense is found in this concept. It's why we save for a rainy day. It's why we plan. It's why we pack an umbrella no matter how optimistic we are. "Waste not, want not" is a conservative mantra. "The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining" is a liberal one. The ancient Haudenosaunee principle that any decision made today must be considered first in the light of its impact on the next seven generations is found in indigenous philosophy around the world.

"What day is it? asked Pooh.
"It's today," squeaked Piglet.
"My favorite day," said Pooh.
               ~A.A. Milne

The rest of what passes for common sense is found here. It's why we say "Seize the day!" It's why we encourage one another with the reminder that life is a journey not a destination. We urge one another to stop and smell the roses. We joke that humans plan and god laughs. "Life," John Lennon wrote, "is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Albert Einstein tells us that "the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none." The ancient Haudenosaunee understood time as cyclical rather than linear, which means that the past, present, and future co-exist, an insight that is also found in indigenous cultures around the world.

What are we to do? Plan for the future or live in the moment? What should we teach our children?

But what can we teach them? They've already mastered the moment. In that they are our teachers. The only things we have to teach are about looking to the future or taking lessons from the past. We can teach our children to save their pennies for a rainy day or tell cautionary tales from long ago. But in the end, we are left, primarily, with what author and essayist Natalia Ginzburg refers to as the "little virtues."

"As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one's neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know."

As Ginzburg points out, we center our "whole system of education" on the virtues of thrift, caution, shrewdness, tact, and a desire for success with the intent of sheltering our children from "Fortune's blows." In doing so, we are asking them to trade the only thing that's real -- the roses abloom in their present -- for worry and guilt over things that exist only as theory or memory.

It's not as if the little virtues are without value, but taken together, and without the great virtues, they too often lead to "cynicism or a fear of life." Generosity, courage, honesty, love, and curiosity; these are the great virtues and to teach the little virtues without them is to neglect the first half of our common sense. The great virtues contain the little ones, but not the other way around. We learn what we need to know about thrift through practicing generosity, caution through courage, and shrewdness through honesty. If we teach the great virtues the little ones will take care of themselves.

That said, I don't know how to teach the great virtues other than through role modeling them myself and admiring them in others. It's as children play, through their self-selected involvements with their fellow humans, that the great virtues take root. This is where we learn to work well with others, to be self-motivated, and the value of being personable. This again is where children become our teachers. The great virtues come more easily to them if they've not been first tainted by the little ones. When I read the story of The Little Red Hen to young children with its heavy-handed moral about hard work, success, and reward, they infallibly condemn the hen as cruel and selfish, while sympathizing with those who she leaves hungry. Young children know in their hearts that the great virtue of generosity dictates sharing bread with those who need it, when they need it: it stands above the meagre tit-for-tat calculations. We once knew this ourselves, but have forgotten it in our constant flighty travels between past and future where the little virtues reside, rarely stopping in the present moment where children live.

As we play, which is the natural habitat of childhood, we build the foundation of great virtues. As we get older and more experienced, the nuances and practicality of the little ones emerge for us, not as new lessons, but rather as corollaries that allow us, in the spirit of generosity rather than meanness, to plant that tree and pack that umbrella. We don't need to turn upon our children with our lessons about the little virtues, at least not until they have had sufficient time and practice with the great ones. 

No, our role is to observe our children carefully. When we do that, we are reminded, for once, that it's today, and that is our favorite day.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
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