Modern Day Virtues

Each day, as we enter the classroom, or the world, we carry the high—even the holy—calling of those given voice (Speaking for Sub-creation)

Whenever asked to speak before a group (though initially tempted to play sick and hide under the covers), this goof does her best to rise to the challenge. It’s quite a change from who I used to be two years ago, but as the above quotation exhorts, I’ve realized that there are things so important and so exciting that they simply must be said. Who am I not to say them?

Thus, the following passage contains the highlights of a speech that I gave on Tuesday night for a TFAS awards ceremony. There are blatant hurdles when it comes to translating speech into prose, but I think that these thoughts (largely inspired by this TED talk by David Brooks) merit being repeated. If nothing else, I hope you get a little chuckle from my personal stage cues!

P.S. A glimpse into my mind: the italicized and underlined portions are the words I especially wanted to emphasize– even linger on– for a bit.

Good evening everyone! First, I have a little confession… I had originally written up another speech for this, but after a few good conversations these last few days and reflecting on the mission of “The Fund for American Studies”, I’m convinced that this new topic is far more important and interesting.

My new topic is virtue. 

I know that if you asked each student here what one word could best embody their summer with TFAS, most would respond with something along the lines of “incredible amounts of learning” or “ great experience.” So I began to reflect on the questions:

What are the kinds of things that we’ve learned through our experience with TFAS?  And even more fundamentally, why are we learning them, or, what is the purpose of learning?

To begin, I believe that the purpose of learning is to develop virtue.  Virtue is a term that has narrowed in meaning over the years, but I want to employ it in the original fullness, coming from the Latin word for excellence or even courage. Simply put, a virtuous person is living their life in an excellent way.

Now I also believe that there are two kinds of virtue– two skill sets required in us for living excellently. Perhaps you are familiar with the way that David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author of The Road to Character, explains this with great clarity as he labels them the “resume virtues” and the “eulogy virtues.” In life, we find that certain virtues are helpful if we want to have more or achieve more in our career. An example of this is the principal virtue of the state, namely, justice. But some virtues are oriented towards being more or even giving more. A good example of this is mercy, the chief virtue of the family.

So, I’ve realized that what makes the learning that goes on through TFAS uniquely great is that it develops leaders who will bear the fruits of both the resume and the eulogy virtues.  The classes, internships, events, and professional mentors are great tools for shaping us into very capable and driven individuals. TFAS does this, and it does this exceptionally well. The proof is sitting right next to you– I look around the room and feel humbled and inspired by the accomplished people before me.

But tonight, I want to especially remind us of the stories that are ever unfolding underneath and in between the coffees, speeches, free food, and exchange of business cards. For we feel most alive, most human, and even most ourselves when we focus on our relationship with others and practice the eulogy virtues. The stories about TFAS that I will be telling around my dinner table one day are these: the cheerful sing-along songs and hair help each morning from my roommates, finding favorite authors in common with unlikely friends, and that one afternoon of hiking on the Billy Goat Trail that culminated with an “I’ll do it if you do it,” in reference to jumping into the Potomac River.

Each day of this summer, we were given vast opportunities to move one step closer to the career we want to have one day, but we were also surrounded by people whose quiet example encouraged us to grow into the virtuous man or woman we want to become one day.

Just one last thing.

As some of you know, I live and breathe in quotes, so I’d like to quickly end with some words from the old English journalist G.K. Chesterton. I invite you to listen carefully, because I think that these words are the key to practicing both sets of virtues. Chesterton writes:

“I would maintain that thanks is the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

So, thank you, TFAS, for helping us to develop both the resume and eulogy virtues. Thank you to those professors like Dr. Bradley and the others at George Mason who put the true good of their students first, thank you to the administration and leadership of TFAS (a special shout out to my leaders Mr. Colin Parks and Kate) who promote the TFAS vision most powerfully by their example, and lastly, thank you to all of my peers, my dear friends whom I have met here.  Your virtuous example and friendship above all has filled me with gratitude, happiness, and especially — wonder.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you forget yourself.

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Learning a Million New Things Everyday

Yesterday, the Comunidad 19 participated in an engaging tour of Centro León, feasted on “La Bandera”, and sang Prince Royce’s “Las Cosas Pequeñasen nuestra clase de español. While this was all wonderful, the real unexpected treat for myself came after dinner in the form of a casual talk by the Dominican Director of ILAC. He began per usual with his background, talking about how he grew up as the youngest of eight brothers on a farm, worked hard in a factory, educated himself enough to own his own farm, and how he now helps run the ILAC center by teaching the campesinos, or Dominican countryside farmers.  As soon as the words “opportunity cost” came out of his mouth during an example, the economist in me was hooked. Rightly so, because it was at this point that he began to speak about the economic differences in the Dominican Republic, and how it was important for our Comunidad to observe the differences but keep in mind that there was most likely an unnoticed rational behind them. “Observe, but not judge,” he repeated over and over as he described how they no longer took American groups to tour the factories where people worked, since in the past people had staunchly objected to the fact that the Dominicans were working such long hours and being paid only about $1 per hour. He pleaded that we do not realize that Dominicans are able to stretch that weekly $50 to support themselves better than we could imagine, since we Americans frankly have little clue about the art of being frugal in a developing country. He added that some people once suggested that the government double the minimum wage, but that this would be completely counter productive as it would cause the factory to relocate to another more lucrative country, leaving behind poor and now job-less workers. The way to break the poverty cycle was not through free handouts, but rather through supporting jobs and education. And here I will interject, because earlier in the day, on the sunny ILAC rooftop, I had read the universal proposition derived from that exact logic. It was a great hour during which the principles that I held by my own reason and logic, here specifically faith in the free market, were confirmed by a completely foreign source who had also arrived at the same principle, but through sheer personal experience. I mentioned in the last post that I had recently read Fr. Sirico’s wonderful book, Defending the Free Market, and found it informative and logical. Here is an important portion from his chapter on foreign aid that was unknowingly repeated almost verbatim during yesterday’s discourse:

“What then can wealthy nations do to assist developing countries? First, don’t make the matter worse by encouraging corruption and governmental irresponsibility, which is exactly what government-to-government aid tends to do. Second, stop undercutting businesses in the developing world by flooding their markets with free goods year after year. Save emergency aid for genuine emergencies, and when you rush in to help, see if there are any local producers already there with whom you can partner to source emergency provisions. Third, open the world’s markets to the businesses of emerging economies. As things stand today, many Western nations practice the confused and contradictory policy of protecting domestic firms through tariffs and subsidies–thereby shutting out the products of developing nations–and at the same time sending billions of dollars in tax money to developing nations to supplement their failing economies. This is the misguided strategy we have used to ‘develop’ Haiti for the past few decades. Is it any wonder Haiti’s people are still struggling to develop?”

The director, a neighbor and eyewitness of Haiti, added vibrant language of his own and described the foreign aid as “handicapping” the Haitians– they don’t need free things, he said, rather they hunger for education so that they themselves may be creators. Work allows individuals to have the necessary responsibility, independence, order, and sense of purpose in their lives. If you truly want to help people and break the cycle of poverty, advance education. And so I climb (through my loathsome mosquito net) into bed tonight feeling content. Content because while La República Dominicana and this experience outside of my comfort-zone has already embellished my surface interests (e.g. bachata music, yuca, siestas, etc.) my core beliefs stand not only unshaken, but triumphantly confirmed. But the best part yet: my Comunidad and I have the privilege of being a part of this legitimate foreign aid since, beginning next Monday, we will be teaching English in three different schools throughout the semester. Here’s to learning–now hopefully teaching–a million new things everyday. 🙂