by Mary M

In a discussion of religion, my friend says, “We have the teachings of Buddha and Christ and Mohammad. And we have those who say they follow these great teachings. What I want to know is, do they really?”

“No,” he suddenly, forcefully answers his own question. “Because the path is not easy. There is no chocolate for us on THAT road, no fast cars, no gold to pile up, no illusion that we are rulers of the world or that, if not us, possibly our children. And so we create ‘work-arounds’ that let us appear virtuous to our neighbors while still we do whatever evil, small or large, we want.”

Ah.

What is virtue, a word more prevalent three or four generations past–that practice of our grandparents’ grandparents? I was taught that virtues are the simple, heart-based qualities of a good life. They are the first, most basic teachings, the consistent steps along the human path offered to us in all the old stories so that we may live balanced, healthy lives.

Consider them: Truth. Goodness. Respect. Humility. Honor. Love. Compassion. These are a few–the practices, that, in your heart, make you warm.

They teach us that we cannot be a little bit virtuous–just as we also cannot be a little bit toxic or, for that matter, a little bit clean.

All of our teachings, world wide, instruct us to speak the truth, perhaps the most basic of all these basic teachings. Oh there are clever animals in some teaching stories that do not hold forth truthfully. But the consequences of their cleverness generally is pain, either to themselves or others. And so, of course, truth is more than the spoken word, causing the teachings to go deep and broad, and to reach far.

But to begin, what would it look like to speak the truth only? To make truth-telling our practice, whether in our intimate relationships with family and friends or our interchange with public processes? What would it mean to us to know that truth was the standard by which our public administrators judged themselves and their service to their citizenry?

Without virtue, we live like drunken drivers, weaving down the highway of life unsure of which lane we should hold to. And so, understandably, disaster happens. And the disasters mount, as we are seeing, more and more quickly.

Wild ones do not know how to lie. Theirs are always truthful lives. Has a salmon ever told a lie? Has this brave creature ever claimed to go where he hasn’t gone, to take more food than he has agreed to take? Wild ones live the old virtues. Their lives are their testimony. They have no choice but truth. And so they remain our first natural teachers.

Humans, however, have the gift of choice, and generally, as my friend notes, we tend to choose poorly, to choose the most convenient path.

But to be born human may still be a supreme honor and a gift if we take the opportunities it gives. We have been given teachers who have taught us. We have been given animals who have taught us. We have been given guidance placed in our own hearts that has taught us.

And we still have time–though some days it appears there is not much –to choose to practice these old virtues that teach us how to live in alignment with all that is.

The salmon are virtuous because they are. We have the opportunity to be virtuous because we choose.

So simple, and yet so seemingly hard, this driving sober down the road. But in our choice is the key to freedom–both for ourselves and others. We know who we are and we know where we stand at any time of the day or night, whether the seas rise to consume us or the weather is fair.

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