Like most, if not all children, I grew up trying to be good. Being a good girl was an organizing principle in my life. A kind of Holy Grail that I pursued with all my might. I was discerning in my endeavors and excellent in my follow through in this regard. I knew that what “good” meant for my father was different than my mother, than my grandfather, than my teachers. This extended to all of the grown-ups I came in contact with. I knew exactly what I needed to do to receive the coveted recognition of “goodness” as bestowed by whatever adult stood before me.
I was so good at being good that it made me physically sick in the form of debilitating stomach pains that had no “cause” according to the doctor. It would be years before I would come to understand it was the price I was paying for a kind of goodness that made others comfortable, as I sacrificed my own well-being to be seen in a certain way. None of this had anything to do with vanity and everything to do with belonging.
I know there is an argument to be made around the perhaps “essential” nature of conditioning children to the mores of the grown-ups in their lives. A kind of “for the good of all,” that I suppose must happen to a certain extent in order to have families and communities where it is clear about what makes for good, and what makes for bad. Whether this is, in fact, how it needs to go, matters not. What does matter to us as children is how absolute to us it all feels. How undeniable, incontrovertible, and inviolate the understandings are that we pick up around what makes us good or not. And how that gives us the right to belong. Or not.
Enter adulthood. While many of us would say that our choices now are based on reason and rationality, if you look at fields that study human nature, what we find is that anywhere from 90 to 95% of what we do emanates from our subconscious. The place in us where the root of all of our attitudes, beliefs and mores live. Including what we believe we need to do to fit in. Including the deep imprints from experiences we had as children around our own autonomy and belonging. This is the very same place that deeply controls our actions, thoughts, and choices. A subterranean world of influence that we typically have no awareness of; despite its powerful presence in our lives.
Which brings me to my point. I recently came across the phrase “Virtue Signaling.” It is being used in relation to whether one complies with the mandates currently in place around the virus, or not. When we comply we signal the virtues of caring and selflessness. When we do not, we signal that we are selfish and dangerous. This messaging strikes deeply at the heart of what it means to be a good person in relation to others. Something we all yearn to be seen as. Something that may feel like heresy to question.
But what if there was more to the story than that?
This is difficult to get to in a world where the preponderance of signalling says compliance with a particular set of instructions is how you do your part. Is how you show you care. Is how you are a hero. Ways of being that every one of us wants to be characterized as by others. But at what cost, and according to whose definition of virtuous? For what if there was far more to this story than the black and white summation of who we are based on whether or not we are masked or get a vaccine? What if there was solid and current science that offered another paradigm around how to be with what is happening?
Interestingly enough, the first reference in the dictionary for the word virtuous is potent. And then, efficacious. When we consider that possessing virtue is about being powerful and effective that adds another dimension to this conversation around what it means to signal to another your virtue. Your goodness. Your caring. Your heroism. What I mean is, what if being virtuous included the courage to ask powerful and effective questions while exploring other possibilities around what it is that brings health to an individual and to the collective?
Where do you derive your goodness from? Does it come from inside of you, from your own mighty well of authenticity and integrity? Or does it come from someplace else? And what is the downside of labeling people as virtuous or not based on one demonstrable piece of information?