Strengthen Your Virtues

“We have received from God self-control, forbearance, restraint, fortitude, patience, and the like, which are great and holy powers, helping us to resist the enemy’s attacks. If we cultivate these powers and have them at our disposal, we do not regard anything that befalls us as painful, grievous, or unbearable, realizing that it is human and can be overcome by the virtues within us. The unintelligent do not take this into account; that do not understand that all things happen for our benefit, rightly and as they should, so that our virtues may shine and we ourselves be crowned by God.” ~The Philokalia

We all have both positive and negative traits. We may be very patient at times, but at other times, get angry easily. We may have strong opinions about something and refuse to listen to anything that proves them wrong, yet on other subjects, we can be very open-minded.

There is currently a hit movie where a little girl’s emotions are pictured as little people living in her head. You could also think of them as animals or a flock of birds. Using the bird analogy, what happened when you feed some of the birds regularly, but rarely feed others? Obviously, the well fed birds will grow big and strong, while the others will be skinny and weak and unable to do anything. The important thing about that is you can decide which birds to feed and which to let go hungry.

Some of us love confrontation so much, we deliberately place ourselves in situations where we can get into arguments with others. This used to be mostly in one-on-one situations, but thanks to modern technology, such people can now become internet snarks and trolls who will argue about anything just for the joy of arguing, just for the thrill of being disagreeable. And because these people are feeding those birds the most, they get constantly bigger and stronger and more out of control. This is how that sweet, quiet kid down the block turns into a terrorist.

Fortunately, there are also people who instead place themselves in situations where they can develop the positive “virtues” rather than the negative. They will do things like babysit for a difficult child to help them develop patience. They will go to a buffet restaurant and eat only what their body truly needs as an exercise in self-control. Just as we grow bigger and stronger muscles by working them at the gym, we grow bigger and stronger virtues by using them regularly and vigorously.

I don’t totally agree with the author of this section of The Philokalia when he says all things happen for our benefit, but I certainly agree that how we react to what happens to us can make us stronger or weaker. If your property is destroyed in a storm, and you make the decision to rebuild and to help others who suffered damage, your virtues grow stronger. If instead, you look for someone to blame and take no responsibility yourself, you do not feed your positive virtues, and may be feeding the negative ones. The choice is always yours.

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