Virtue: Personate or Personify?

Okay, so you agree.

Virtues are the glue without which no nation can long endure; they are the sticky stuff without which no institution can hold together; they are the centripetal force without which no organization can defy disintegration. If people do not learn about virtues in the home, in the school, in the media, through public policy, by the example of individuals in places of authority, and particularly in church, then humanity will move inexorably away from civilization and down into the pit of lawlessness, into a pit of barnyard morality where virtues are unnamed, unknown, unsung, and finally unwelcome.

There seem to be a lot of people who agree with you. According to a U.S. News and World Report cover story, 95 percent of Americans share similar basic values and virtues. So why is it that the moral foundation of this country continues to erode against the tide of hedonism? Maybe the answer to this question is the same as the answer to a question that confounds us when it comes to teaching and coaching virtue.

Almost everyone says that they really appreciate the concepts of virtue, but then they fail to support it, internalize it, act on it, or implement it in their own lives. They are willing to talk the talk, but they won’t walk the walk. The same thing happens every Sunday in hundreds of thousands of churches across this great country of ours. People stand and proclaim their commitment to virtue and then walk out the door of the church to live a life of viciousness. They value the concepts of virtue, but not enough to actually put those concepts into practice in their own lives.

Most people can “Personate Virtue”, fewer take the next step and actually “Personify Virtue”.

It’s easy for people to “Personate Virtue”, to play the role, to portray and pretend, that’s why so many people do it. To represent and simulate virtue is painless, it requires no personal sacrifice. It’s also easy to fool yourself into believing that you are a good person if you simply “Personate Virtue”. You can get all kinds of verbal support for virtue, people will readily talk the talk, but don’t count on them to actually practice virtue, and walk the walk. Virtue sounds good to them as a great way of judging others, and as a way of sizing people up to see if they measured up to a certain standard, but it ends there.

To “Personify Virtue”, now that’s the tough one, this requires personal sacrifice. It’s way harder to actually act out virtue in our daily lives. To embody virtue, to epitomize virtue, to exemplify virtue, to conduct virtuous acts, to live it, now there’s the rub! Personifying virtue calls us not to judge others, but to examine ourselves. I think this is what keeps a lot of parents, teachers, and coaches from diving into coaching and teaching virtue with both feet. They would actually have to embellish and personify virtue, and they simply can’t bring themselves to do that. So what they end up doing is saying that they support virtue and then pass the materials on to another parent, teacher, or coach who might be able to personify virtue and be a good leader for our kids. They know that it’s good, but they can’t commit themselves, so they are hoping that by passing it on, it might get into the hands of a better man or women who could actually personify virtue and be a better role model for our youth. I’ll say…pass the buck!

Here is a great analogy that I think illustrates the difference between “Personating” and “Personifying” virtue:

Suppose for a moment that ten years ago you took up fishing. For ten years you have told everyone you meet that you are a fisherman, including all your relatives, your family, and your friends. You own a fishing boat, but you haven’t taken it out on the water for at least eight years. You read book after book on how to fish. You attend two or three fishing and sportsman shows each year. You have the waders and vests and all the fishing clothing money can buy. You watch several fishing shows each week on TV. When you go to the barber shop, all you do is talk about fishing. Your tackle box is so full of lures, and flies, and gear that you can hardly shut it, but it also has a thick coat of dust over it from being stored in your garage. You spent so much money on that new fishing pole that if your wife found out she would hang you, but you can’t remember what it feels like to lay a cast where you want. You can’t remember what it feels like to have the tip on the rod tugged by a rainbow trout, or any other fish for that matter. You can’t remember the last time you went fishing. Here’s the question:

You can personate a fisherman all you want, but if you don’t do what fisherman do (i.e. fish), are you really a fisherman?

If you don’t actually live out (personify) virtue, are you virtuous?

What are some ways that we can personify the virtues?

Identify them. The very first thing to do is to name them. Then we are able to think about them and to discuss them with some perceptiveness with others.

Practice them. We can incorporate them into our vocabularies, assimilate them into our daily lives, grow comfortable with them in our routine activities, and utilize them as accepted factors in our daily lives.

Live with them. Discuss them when sitting around the dinner table, have them in mind when going to bed at night, and keep them in focus when rising up in the morning. This is the recipe for the food which our hungry world is starving for.

Propagate them. The virtues are worth learning. They are worth studying, teaching, and thinking about. And they are worth sharing.

Invest in them. Commit your time, talent, and treasure to spreading virtue to others, especially our youth.

I personally challenge you to “Personify Virtue”. I personally challenge you to study virtue, to grasp a deeper understanding of each of the virtues, and to live them out wholeheartedly, to make virtue the measuring stick against which every other area of your life is measured.