Unsung virtues

There are some attributes of character which are commonly regarded as detrimental to “getting along in the world”. Well, if what you want most is that, they probably are. But these unsung virtues have other values, which have been on my mind lately. Each one of them is something I’ve come to value, personally, and which at some point or other people have tried to talk me out of. This is my response.

The first is the virtue of being gullible. Yes, it can get one into trouble. The fear of such trouble is typically what steers people away from this precious attribute. I say precious, because it acts as a hedge against the mind’s tendency to believe in its own models of reality. To be gullible is to be willing to give credence to things outside that model. Combined with sufficient reflection, I think it works to our long-term advantage to believe in something first, and then examine its faults afterward. This is far easier than the opposite: to not believe in something, then try to evaluate its merits. The motivation is lacking.

There is something to belief that either closes or opens the mind to seeing new things (which might or might not be “real”). To be gullible is to see more, through a willingness to see more. And once seen, detachment determines how far we able are to keep what is real, and discard what is not.

The second unsung virtue is enthusiasm. I would tend to think everyone sees this as a virtue, but it’s not so. From the Greek, it means “to be filled with God”, or to let the divine powers overcome us for a while. This state is so directly opposed to self-control, that the more I manifest enthusiasm, the more people tell me to calm down. Yet, from that inner fount issues forth so many ideas, so much energy, so much freedom from the excessive controls that bind our thinking: how could it be anything less than a virtue?

The third is naivete. To be naive is to see things as they appear, rather than what they mean – presumably, because one doesn’t understand that meaning. But there is another kind of naivete, which is knowing what things should mean, but preferring to take them at face value. Yes, we can look at an abandoned house and see a derelict structure waiting for destruction; or we can see it as a place of mystery and past lives, begging to be explored. Children invent entire worlds from the ordinary stuff of life, because they simply don’t care for an adult’s interpretation of what they see. They prefer the magic of their own imagination overlaid on the mundane, to what is considered the “right” way of seeing things. Naivete is about stepping back from the concrete, and letting the colors of a scene play in your mind for a while. It can mean missing the finer points, at times; but it can also mean seeing what no one else can see, because they lack the combination of a child’s eye and an adult’s experience. The richness of that combination is what makes naivete a virtue.

To achieve any of these virtues requires a willingness to give up the image of a mature, respectable adult. Not because mature, respectable adults can’t have these qualities, but because displaying them just doesn’t fit the modern definition of such a person. A mature adult is always calm, cool, collected, rational, never flighty, focused on important things, with play set aside for its time. The virtues I’ve described, however, fit more the image of a child than an adult (it’s partly why people continue to think my age is ten years less than it is). But is this because such virtues should only be found in children, or because society desires such control over our behavior, that it deprecates these things without considering their benefits?

I think, in the end, that wisdom requires a willingness to play the fool. Otherwise, how can we be sure the fool’s actions aren’t playing to a bigger picture? Consider the behavior of the great mystics, and how society regarded them, for a poignant example of this.