Star Wars Virtue

I write this post as hurricane Irene is bearing down on the east coast. Though so far it has been something of a let down. While I certainly don’t want mass damage, so far there has been little more than a steady rain. Oh well. [Note- not five minutes after completing the first draft of this essay the power went out, not to come back for 24 hours. It was out even longer in neighboring towns. Guess I tempted fate.] School is about to start here in New England and I have been giving some thought as to how I can incorporate the classical virtues in my every day teaching.

Values education has been around for years, but most programs I have seen have revolved around reading kids painfully fabricated stories and then discussing the moral decisions the characters must make. They tend to be preachy, unrealistic and the kids treat them accordingly. The teacher “covers” the values section of the curriculum and the kids file it away, never really gaining anything long lasting.

Enter the four classical virtues.
Ideally a values education program would allow English teachers to use the works they always have- books and stories that have stood the test of time and appeal to students intellectually and aesthetically, rather than prepackaged “programs.” It is my hope that by applying the classical virtues to what we already read we can show students examples of how to live without it coming across as phony, or put on.

I believe every major character in a work of fiction either exemplifies one of the four classical virtues or is lacking in one of them. Many times a protagonist will do both, with the lacking virtue acting as the character’s fatal flaw. Let’s use Star Wars as a proxy for all fiction simply because it is familiar to most.
Each character in Star Wars can be analyzed by looking at how much or how little of each classical virtue he has. I am going to limit myself to the first movie (by first I mean 1977 release, not the chronological first- confusing isn’t it?) I’ll look at two characters, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
Luke the Evolving Hero
He is brave enough to decide to rescue Princess Leia and his sense of justice will not let him leave the job undone when they go up against superior forces in the Death Star. Yet, he lacks prudence. This devil-may-care, jump-before-you-look attitude leads him into trouble time and time again. It is not really until the end of the first trilogy that we see a Luke who is able to think about his next move and make it confidently, knowing he is doing the correct thing at the correct time.
Han  the Complete Hero
Solo on the other hand is quite prudent and moderate in his dealings. However, because these two virtues are not tempered by Justice, he tends to only look out for himself. It is not until he puts others before himself that he becomes a true hero. He is in fact the real hero of the first film, even though Luke is the one who saves the day.
Han is the one who overcomes his main flaw and comes in to save Luke just before certain death. The fact that Luke is the one who destroys the Death Star is an important step in his hero’s journey, but he is not finished. Han on the other hand has essentially completed his journey and will be a steadfast hero throughout the rest of the films.
Looking at fictional characters through the lens of the classical virtues allows you to see deeper into their motivations and eventual actions. In turn you can discuss morals and values in a more authentic manner.
I will return to this topic in a few posts and elaborate on how I will try to incorporate this into my teaching over the course of the year.

The Fallacy of the Emergency Fund

When it comes to giving until it hurts, most people have a very low threshold of pain. I understand this saying  firsthand. Finances have been a topic of discussion around my home this summer for a variety of reasons, some good, some not so good. But whenever man evaluates his money, his true self seems to come through. And my true self could use some work.

We have all heard the advice: you should have “x” number of months expenses set aside in case of an emergency. Just how many months depends on who you listen to, but the net effect is the same. Experts tell you to keep thousands of dollars in the bank,  just in case.

While I have always struggled to follow this advice, I bought the premise. After all, it makes sense. If the roof suddenly starts to leak, or the water heater blows, it would be nice to have money already saved up for this. But let’s be honest with ourselves, if we can afford to keep 4 months worth of salary sitting in the bank, we can probably figure out how to pay for a new muffler on the car if disaster strikes.

The virtue of Justice requires us to be good stewards of our money.

While intellectually this makes sense to me, I have always struggled to really make this part of my financial life. What exactly does being a good steward mean? I give money to church, support a couple charities I believe in. Does that mean I am being just with my money, or does stewardship require more?

Here is where that emergency fund comes into play. What exactly is an emergency? And does the emergency have to affect me directly in order for me to spring to action?  As a freelance writer who depends on a laptop for part of my income, a suddenly dead computer would fall into the category of emergency. Or does it?

One way or another I would get it fixed or replaced. I might have to finance it, or carry some debt on the credit card, but my family would eat every day and we’d have comfortable beds to sleep in each night. Not to mention cable TV, cell phones, a reliable car, health care and of course each other.

So if replacing a $1,000. computer isn’t really an emergency what is? Short of an utter disaster, which  is what we have insurance for, I have a hard time thinking of an honest-to-goodness emergency. However, if I expand my sphere of influence a bit I can find them everywhere.

The recent crisis in Africa springs immediately to mind. My wife came across a news report of a mother literally waiting for her son to die in her arms at the same time we were bemoaning the fact that our dream budget needed to be amended for the last 4 months of the year. She likes to call these moment like these a “God Smack.” In this instance, I have to agree with her.  
Kids dying in their parents arms is an emergency. My really wanting a new car is not.

I am a big fan of author and theologian C.S. Lewis. He speaks of our need to follow the virtue of justice when it comes to charity with better eloquence  than I can.

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.

This, I think, is what being a just steward with your money means. This is hard. Here is where the rubber meets the road. If I am truly going to try and live my life according to the classical virtues then I need to do it not only when it is easy and feels good. But I also must push through and do it when it is hard and feels, well, not necessarily bad, but, uncomfortable.

So in the end we reworked that family budget and cut out some more fat. Our bills will get paid. But in the process we also found a way to more than double our charitable giving. No surprise where that first check went.

“All you have shall some day be given: Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.” — Kahlil Gibran

The Virtues of Our Ancestors

I have incredibly deep roots in the northeast. Most of my family, on both maternal and paternal sides, came down from Canada into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in the early to mid 1800’s. And as far as I can figure they were in Canada for a good 150-200 years before that.
Recently, I visited upstate New York where I did a bit of research into my father’s side of the family tree. After walking through that rural landscape with it’s mountain passes and fields of swaying corn, as well as reading countless historical documents from census records to newspapers to farm schedules, I have come to a startling conclusion.
I am fairly certain my ancestors could kick my ass, and had more character than I ever will.
The hard lives they lived as farmers and laborers left little time for comfort and softness. Pumping water for up to four hours a day simply to supply the livestock, struggling through winters that dipped to 30 below, all while raising families of 9, 10, 11 children all built character. They lived the four classical virtues in an authentic way because if they didn’t, they likely wouldn’t survive.
Prudence came more naturally because the world was a much less forgiving place. Mistakes in judgement could mean ruined crops, dead animals or children without enough to eat. If I make a bad decision I can usually make up for it –  at least materially- pretty quickly.
Fortitude was something they had in spades. Simply existing then took courage. When I think about my ancestors leaving all they knew to travel to what they hoped would be better land to start all over, usually with huge families in tow, I am left speechless. I doubt I would have that courage. I know that for good or ill, I have grown too comfortable.

When there are less distractions Moderation tends to be man’s natural default. The siren song of TV, radio and Internet were not things they had to contend with in the 1800’s. Nor was the danger of over eating. With no ready-made convenience food most of the time they were doing their best simply to have enough. They worked when it was light, rested when it was dark and spent Sundays with family.

Finally, the concept of Justice was much more immediate. Reading one newspaper article I saw how what we would call a mugging was thwarted by a couple courageous townsman. When they is less of an official deterrence in the form of regular police, lawyers and courts, neighbors needed to take care of each other.
Trying to live a virtuous life in the 21st century has a number of obstacles that life in the rural 19th century simply didn’t have. I love living where I do and when I do,  and I know that it is easy to idealize the past. I am sure there were obstacles to virtue that I am glossing over. Still, a part of me wonders if all our so-called progressed has simply made it harder to live life the ways it is supposed to be lived.