RECLAIMING VIRTUE John Bradshaw
In Reclaiming Virtue, John Bradshaw invites us to join him on a journey through the moral and ethical challenges we face every day in our own lives, and as we try to raise our children to become good and happy people. He shows how we can motivate ourselves and others to draw on our moral intelligence and do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. Step by step, Bradshaw shows us how our deepest instincts for goodness can be developed in childhood and nurtured throughout adult life. Reclaiming Virtue builds a vision of good character and moral responsibility for the modern world; and as we nurture new generations in compassion and integrity, so society will begin to heal. This is an especially valuable guide for parents and teachers.
528pp, 160mm x 236mm, Paperback, 2009
Magnificent Moral Moments
Since the beginning of time, men and women have told stories about bravery, loyalty, justice, and the dignity and enduring strength of humans. We have a natural hunger for such stories. They bring us hope about the goodness and generosity of the human spirit. They help us withstand hardship, suffering, and calamity.
Dr. Robert Coles, a renowned Harvard child psychiatrist and author, calls these stories 'magnificent moral moments.'
Ruby Bridges was only six years old when she was enrolled in the formerly all-white William Frantz School in New Orleans. Ruby was among the first black children to initiate desegregation in New Orleans, and the only black child at William Frantz.
It was November 1960, only five years after Rosa Parks precipitated the civil rights movement by claiming her right to sit anywhere she wanted on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. New Orleans was still a hotbed of racial hatred.
People wanted to kill Ruby Bridges and her family and had no reluctance saying so over and over again. Little Ruby went up against tremendous hate, prejudice, and pressure. In The Moral Life of Children, Robert Coles tells Ruby's story.
For days that turned into weeks and weeks that turned into months, this child had to brave murderously heckling mobs, there in the morning and there in the evening, hurling threats and slurs and hysterical denunciations and accusations. Federal marshals took her to school and brought her home. She attended school all by herself for a good part of a school year, owing to a total boycott by white families.
Coles was perplexed by Ruby's behavior. How could she handle such hatred and rejection? Her teachers had started to wonder how she could persist under the barrage of threats, bigotry, and scorn she was experiencing. How could a child this age have such inner strength, courage, and perseverance?
A white teacher at Ruby's school told Coles that one day she was standing in a classroom looking out the window and saw Ruby Bridges coming down the street.
The crowd was there, shouting, as usual. A woman spat at Ruby but missed; Ruby smiled at her. A man shook his fist at her; Ruby smiled at him. Then she walked up the stairs, and she stopped and turned and smiled one more time! You know what she told one of the marshals? She told him she prays for those people, the ones in the mob, every night before she goes to sleep.
Coles refused to believe that Ruby's moral strength could be sustained solely by prayer, especially when she was all alone at school. Coles knew that Ruby was a member of a solid church community and that she loved and trusted her pastor and her parents, but even so, Ruby's strength still did not fit into any of the known psychoanalytic theories or moral developmental models. Coles reluctantly accepted that Ruby Bridges exemplified a 'new reality,' transcending any theory he had of a six-year-old child.
Ruby's parents certainly had unusual moral courage. They had left their life as sharecroppers in hopes of finding a better life in the city, but their lives were put in jeopardy for enrolling their child in a formerly all-white school. Ruby's father was fired from his job, and even her grandparents were forced to move off the land they had farmed. Ruby's mother was not well educated, but it was she who helped clarify Coles' confusion. On one occasion she told him:
'There's a lot of people who talk about doing good, and a lot of people who argue about what's good and not good.' Then she added that 'there are a lot of people who always worry about whether they are doing right or wrong.' Finally, there are some other folks: 'They just put their lives on the line for what's right, and they may not be the ones who talk a lot or argue a lot or worry a lot; they just do a lot!'
The Better Angels of Our Nature
Magnificent moral moments often move us to tears. They can make chills run down our spine; sometimes they inspire us to change. Why is this? These stories seem to touch something deep within us, a part of us that is naturally attracted to what is good and virtuous.
The psychologist Erik Erikson writes: 'Men have always shown a dim knowledge of their better potentialities by paying homage to those purest leaders who taught the simplest and most inclusive rules for an undivided mankind.'
Abraham Lincoln evoked the source of this dim knowledge with his phrase 'the better angels of our nature.'
Is this dim knowledge of our better potentialities a unique kind of moral intelligence that is part of human nature? If it is part of our nature, why is it that so few people develop it fully? And if the rules taught by our purest leaders are so simple, why have I found it so hard to live virtuously?
Back to My Roots
In my attempt to answer these questions, I went back to my early days in the seminary and reviewed my former studies of the Greek ethical tradition that culminated in the work of Aristotle. I also reconnected with the medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas. These men had helped me change the direction of my life and shaped my early adult understanding of the mysteries of good and evil, and how the life of virtue can be achieved.
Now, forty-five years later, I realized that when I first studied these great thinkers, I was too immature and lacking in life experience to grasp the depth and grandeur of their thought, even though they did mark a profound turning point in my life. As I reread them, I was amazed at the coherence of their ethical thinking and how it offered real answers to the complex moral questions of today. Aristotle wrote four hundred years before Christ, yet his work anticipates the most recent advances in our understanding of the plasticity of the brain and the part played by intuition and emotion in making moral choices.
It was Aristotle's belief that virtue and human happiness are synonymous. He asserted that we cannot be fully human without developing the inner strengths he called 'virtues.' Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas also believed that at the pinnacle of moral life are the virtues of love and justice, which transcend mere adherence to rules and laws. But these virtues, they said, can be fully developed only when we also develop the skill to make choices based on 'lucid and reasonable desire.' They believed that this skill was itself a virtue, and they called it prudence or moral wisdom. They saw it as a unique practical intelligence that allows us to discover the best, most caring alternative amid the countless circumstances that are present in every real moral choice.
An Ethics for Our Time
I believe that our current state of moral uncertainty and confusion offers us an unprecedented opportunity to embrace our ethical responsibility as adults. We can develop the inner strengths that will guide us morally no matter how much the world changes around us and no matter what new circumstances we encounter. The ancient philosophers and theologians call these inner strengths virtues. As one of the great founding fathers of our country, James Madison, told us: 'Is there no virtue among us? If there be not... no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty and happiness without any form of virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.'
Please join me in my personal journey to make sense out of the complexities and ambiguity of the moral/ethical order. I want to live a virtuous life, and I want you to find a solution to your own moral and ethical dilemmas by using your own moral intelligence and personal faith. There has never been a time when we had a greater need to call on the 'better angels of our nature.'
From Reclaiming Virtue, ?2009 by John Bradshaw, published by Piatkus.