June 8, 2009

Fantasy Virtue

Category: Family,Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

In the second issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, there is an interview with the British mystery writer P. D. James.  The interviewer, Ken Myers, asks James why evil characters are easier to depict than good characters.

James responds by saying that evil characters are often more dramatic.  They commit dramatic crimes, such as murder.  Virtuous characters, on the other hand, are often less dramatic.  A man may have courage in dramatic situations: the man who runs into a burning building to rescue a child.  But most often, courage is expressed in small, undramatic situations and in ways that no one else might notice: the woman who bravely faces a day in which she must carry out a number of duties in spite of ongoing terrible pain.

What James says about virtue resonates with something I’ve noticed recently myself.  Paul tells husbands to love their wives, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).  Husbands are to model themselves after Christ, giving themselves, pouring themselves out, laying down their lives for their wives.

But more than once, when I’ve said that, I’ve received a certain response.  A man will begin talking about how he would be willing, should the need arise, to give his life for his wife.  If, say, they were out somewhere and someone held them up at gunpoint, he would be willing to die so that his wife could get away.  He would be willing, in other words, to do some dramatic act of self-sacrifice to rescue his wife should the need arise.

What strikes me is how common this response is and how unrealistic it really is.  For some reason, it seems to me, we have a tendency to romanticize virtue, to dream of dramatic acts of virtue, to fantasize about being dramatically virtuous, and then to feel good about our willingness to perform such acts if they were ever to be required of us.  Our fantasies allow us to feel virtuous without actually having to act virtously.

In fact, we are not likely to be called to risk our lives for our wives in such dramatic ways.   What is far more likely to happen is that our wives are going to want us to do the dishes or help clean the house or take out the trash or play with the children or sit and talk when we would rather not be bothered.

“Oh, sure,” we say.  “I would lay down my life for my wife, if someone broke into my house and threatened us.”  We pretend we’re willing to do the great thing.  But all the while, we’re not willing to do the little thing, to pour out our lives for our wives when all they require is a bit of time and attention.  We would rather fantasize about being dramatically Christ-like than actually get up, turn off the TV, and serve our wives.

Service seems too undramatic, too ordinary, too humdrum, too much to ask of such virtuous people as we dream ourselves to be.  And so we affirm Paul’s words about self-giving love, romanticize them by fantasizing about virtually impossible situations in which we could obey them, and … fail to heed them at all in the real situations in which we live.

As P. J. O’Rourke put it, “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:03 pm | Discuss (0)

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