Virtue is found in moderation

In medio stat virtus (Latin)

Most virtues taken to an extreme can become a vice. For a particular virtue to be beneficial, it needs to be balanced by a different virtue. The Stoic philosophers had a term for this—anacoluthia—the mutual entailment of the virtues; no virtue is a virtue by itself. 

For instance, notice how each of these virtues, if not balanced by another virtue, can be unproductive, but when paired together they create balance.

  • Confidence without humility can lead to egotism and unhealthy self-reliance. Humility without confidence can make you timid.
  • Courage without caution can lead to recklessness. Unbalanced, caution can lead to passivity.   
  • Frugality without generosity can lead to excessive thriftiness and stinginess. Generosity without frugality can lead you to the poor house.
  • Openness can lead to healthy transparency and aid to developing relationships; but it needs to be balanced by discretion.
  • Self-control has its advantages but without some spontaneity you may live a stiff and dull life.

Any strength, out of balance, can become a weakness. For instance, I am fanatical about being on time. Granted, punctuality is a virtue, but my zeal for being on time can consume too much of my attention and may cause me to miss other, equally important issues.  

Philosopher Gregory Bateson expands this thought to include other elements: “There is always an optimal value, beyond which anything is toxic, no matter what: oxygen, sleep, psychotherapy, philosophy.”

Analyze yourself. What are your core strengths? What is the potential downside of each strength? What virtue would balance each of your core strengths? 

So the key is balance; moderation. Extremism and fanaticism excludes alternative ideas or activities and lead to imbalance, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness.

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Accept people in different seasons of their lives

You’re a different person at different stages of your life.

Ten years ago, when I started working at my current church, I met a man named Bob (I’ll use that name because that was his name). He was a delightful man. He arrived early on Sunday mornings to help prepare the sanctuary for worship; he was friendly and engaging; he had a positive attitude. We had lunch together about every six months and developed a friendship. 

Several years ago Bob was diagnosed with a fast-growing brain tumor and died within four months. 

At his funeral, his brother, who was a pastor, spoke. I was shocked to hear him describe Bob as a difficult person to be around; he even said that family members might have had a hard time attending his funeral. 

After the funeral I emailed the brother and shared my dismay at how he had spoken poorly about Bob. After all, it was the man’s funeral. I’ll never forget his long and thorough reply. It taught me a valuable life-lesson. 

In his early years, Bob was, indeed, a very difficult person to be around. Through the years he had abused his family relationships; some of them were irreparably damaged. In his speech at the funeral, his brother was trying to help family members understand the complexities of the relationships and encourage them to forgive Bob, for their own peace of mind. 

His carefully worded email made sense. It helped me understand what he was trying to do at the funeral. He also affirmed my love and appreciation for Bob and taught me an important life-lesson by saying, “Don we all go through seasons of life. You met Bob later in life; he was different then. But don’t judge others who knew him in a different season.”

In a similar scenario, I once became friends with a man who had made major mistakes in the early days of his profession. Someone who was hurt by his mistakes derided me for starting a friendship with him and suggested that I disavow him and distance myself from him. Was I wrong in pursuing this relationship?

Here’s what I’ve learned. 

  • When we meet someone, accept him as he is at his current stage in life; don’t discount his life because of past mistakes. Hopefully, we’re all progressing and improving throughout our lives. We need acceptance and grace in every season.
  • Don’t judge someone who has disengaged from a relationship that was abusive or unhealthy because sometimes it’s best to sever an abusive relationship and cease all ties. (Though all of us should forgive our offenders, that doesn’t mean we must remain friends with them.) 

Here’s a parting thought: we all have a best friend during each stage of our lives; blessed is the person who has the same friend throughout all stages of life.

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Explore the universe without leaving your home

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space. Hamlet

Stephen Hawking is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. At age 21 he was  diagnosed with ALS, a type of motor neuron disease. His illness progressed rapidly and ultimately he was confined to a wheelchair, completely paralyzed, only able to communicate by raising his eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. 

The disease paralyzed his body, but not his mind. For the next 55 years he worked on unifying general relativity with quantum theory. He also made the startling discovery that black holes should not be completely black but rather emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear. For 30 years he was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge (the same position held by Isaac Newton in 1669).  Hawking died on March 14, 2018, age 76, and was buried in Westminster Abbey’s Scientists’ Corner between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. 

Hawking personified what Shakespeare proffered: I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space. 

Though Hawking lived confined in a wheelchair, he said, “I have lived an extraordinary life on this planet, while at the same time traveling across the universe by using my mind and the laws of physics. I have been to the furthest reaches of our galaxy, travelled into a black hole and gone back to the beginning of time.”

Hawking’s life teaches us that though our bodies are geographically confined, our minds can roam the universe. If only we will let them.

I know a lady who was raised in Farmington, New Mexico which is about 40 miles from the Four Corners area of the United States (the quadripoint in the Southwest where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet). From Farmington, one can visit the other three states in a convenient 100-mile drive. But she had never been outside her home state. Oh my…

Many people have never “traveled very far” in their minds; they are content to stay in Farmington. 

That’s why I’m a huge advocate of reading. There’s no place you can’t “go” and nothing you can’t learn if you will simply read broadly and consistently.

This journey into unchartered realms is initiated and sustained by curiosity.  If you’re not curious about what you don’t know and where you haven’t been, you’ll stay at home. Don’t do that.

See below for a video of Stephen Hawkins’ last public appearance.

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The curse of knowledge, part 2 – control how much knowledge you share

I recently returned from leading a group of 36 friends on a European tour. We visited seven countries in 15 days. It was among the best trips I have ever experienced. Every day was full of memorable moments. 

We did have one regrettable moment in Rome.

Our tour guide in Rome had an encyclopedic knowledge of Rome. Her recall of dates, history, people, and events was amazing. And she spoke passionately. But she talked too much. She gave too much detail about each sight. People can only digest a limited amount of information at a time. Her commentary was so dense, and delivered so quickly, that we couldn’t process it. 

Mid-day I realized that her unreasonably long commentaries were throwing us off schedule. We had only one day to see the Roman ruins (Colosseum, Forum) and the Vatican (Museum, Sistine Chapel, Basilica) and we were running out of time.

My favorite building in the world is St. Peter’s Basilica. It is immense, beautiful, inspiring, and astonishing. Seeing it was to be the climax of our trip. But when we finally stood in front of the church our tour guide said, “Be back here in five minutes.”

Five minutes? Are you kidding? We had been victimized by our tour guide’s curse of knowledge.

Previously I wrote a post—The curse of knowledge—in which I suggested that one type of “curse of knowledge” occurs when a person has such mature and advanced knowledge in a specific area that he cannot remember what it’s like to not have this knowledge. This makes it harder to identify with people who don’t have this knowledge base. It also inhibits our ability to explain things in a manner that is easily understandable to someone who is a novice.

In this post I’m suggesting that our knowledge can also be a stumbling block (curse may be too strong a word) when we’re insensitive about how much knowledge is appropriate to share at a particular time. 

While in Rome, I admired the tour guide’s immense knowledge, but she grossly misjudged how much we were interested in hearing, how much we could digest at one time, and how her excessive commentary would affect our schedule.

This social faux pas is more common than we think.

    • Have you ever asked someone a question, desiring a simple, short answer, but you get a long, complicated one? The person drones on and on, getting stuck in unnecessary minutia. 
    • Have you ever read a book that is just too detailed? For instance, I love New York City so when I heard that David McCullough wrote a book about the Brooklyn Bridge I bought it. But after reading only 25 out of 608 pages I abandoned the effort; I don’t want to know that much about the bridge. 
    • Did you ever have a teacher that knew his subject well but delivered too much information too quickly? In college I took a math class that was advertised as a course for non-math majors, but the professor went so fast that most of us were lost 10 minutes into the first lesson. Bad teacher. I dropped the course.   

Often, we’re the victims of this particular expression of the curse of knowledge, but sometimes we’re the perpetuators. 

Back to the trip. After we finished that day’s tour of Rome we shared a delightful meal together at an open-air restaurant on Piazza Navona. My table shared a nice bottle of Chianti Classico red wine. Knowing that I’m a wine expert, someone casually asked me, “Don, what do you think of the wine?” I proceeded to give a three-minute lecture on the Sangiovese grape, unique aging requirements, etc. I soon realized I was sharing too much knowledge; a simple “This is a terrific wine; the grapes are grown locally” would have sufficed. 

Let’s be more self-aware of how much information is desirable and needed in conversations.

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