Last week I wrote about the importance of virtues, particularly in times of change and uncertainty. Virtues are the values that we deem to be universal across cultures, peoples, and traditions. Common to all of the ancient traditions are six such virtues: courage, justice, humanity (including love), temperance, wisdom, and transcendence. Studies of contemporary society and cultures reveal similar virtues: honesty, respect, kindness, openness, tolerance, and love. In my post last week, I asked the question: “What would it look like if I acted from a place of virtue – from love, wisdom, courage, forgiveness, and self-control?”
As I reflected more deeply on that question this week, it occurred to me that there is a master virtue – one that captures the spirit and essence of all of the virtues combined. One that, if it were the only virtue, would be a complete guide to living and leading effectively. For me, that virtue is love.
The ancient Greeks may have placed wisdom at the top of the virtue hierarchy, but they understood the importance of love. So much so that they used seven different words to express various forms of love. Eros was used to describe romantic, passionate, intimate love. Philia referred to the type of love between close friends. Storge described familial love. Ludus meant the playful, flirtatious experience of falling in love. Philautia meant love for oneself. Pragma described the kind of companionship experienced by long-time partners. And finally, agape was the highest form of love. The kind of unconditional, universal love for all beings that transcends circumstances and self.
It is this agape type of selfless love, or the loving-kindness metta of Buddhism, that I believe forms the master virtue. Imagine a world where every action was preceded by a feeling of unconditional love for self and other. I observe the world today and see a scarcity of this virtue. In its place, I notice an abundance of anger, fear, and judgment. As if those emotions were a necessary precondition to effective action, to justice. As if love were somehow antithetical to strength and justice and power (in the very best sense of that word). In much of the current discourse, I witness the unfortunate triumph of self-righteousness over compassion and understanding. Most people today would rather be right than be happy, or certainly loving. In its most pernicious form, anger and blame are self-directed. They take root in a sort of metastatic guilt and self-blame that infects and erodes the soul over time and does no one any good.
We would all be wise to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Or Nelson Mandela who, after spending twenty-seven years in prison, remarked, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Did they and others like them experience anger, frustration, and even hatred at times? Of course they did. But they were guided by the master virtue of love. Their dominant emotional home was formed out of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, understanding, and contribution. They knew that effective action and sustainable progress can only come from this place.
The world we live in today is, in many ways, more uncertain and complex than ever. In other ways, it is as it always has been – a place that demands we find a better way to guide ourselves. We are at yet another crossroads. A rip in the fabric of society that opens up a possibility to think differently. My hope is that virtue, and in particular love, fills that void. For that to happen, each of us must begin to ask a fundamentally different question: “What would I say or do if I were to come from a place of love?”