If you have a big strike against you from the very beginning, you have the opportunity to grow ethically and spiritually from it. On the other hand, if you choose to go along with the default mode and submit to accepted authority, you face the prospect of living an unsatisfying, unhappy life.
I was blessed with two big strikes. The first one was to be born with red hair. (See yesterday’s post about gingers.) All through childhood, peers mercilessly teased me about that “glow in the dark” hair and pale, white skin. The teachers weren’t much better, because none of them ever came to my defense. In my mind, the teachers implicitly approved of the taunts. Add to this, the authority of the church implied that redheaded people were the spawn of Satan.
The fact of the matter was that red hair was a natural part of my make up. Regardless of what classmates and teachers may have thought, their authority on the matter was false. Being a ginger was integral. I reasoned that even if I dyed my hair, the roots would still be red. Even if it was all shaved off, the red hair would still try to grow back. I took comfort from family and friends who told me they liked red hair. Their support was essential for self-acceptance.
The second major strike turned out to be sexual orientation. This one was spookier because of the social taboos surrounding the discussion of sexuality, especially during the time-frame of the 1960s. Even among those peers who championed the “sexual revolution” of those years, homosexuality was severely frowned upon. So, even while they were breaking from authority about sexual norms, most sexual revolutionaries were silent and distant regarding acceptance of gay people.
The Church has been historically downright hostile towards people like me. Library shelves of religiously inspired anti-gay books have been printed. They condemn us to the worst possible fates. In that even the authority of the family disapproved of me, I was on my own in small town Nebraska.
In my heart of hearts, I knew those who wanted me to change were deeply mistaken. They could, and did, quote scripture until the cows came home. Their pointed cherry-picked verses were wrong. Their authority was tainted. Even though my sexuality turned out to be a poorly kept secret, the struggle to remain in the closet remained until I could leave my home town. The lessons learned from accepting red hair were applied to this new and bigger aspect.
The understanding that authority comes from human minds and human interpretation of “ancient wisdom”, cemented the virtue of skepticism as part of my life. These days, whether or not particular authority figures agree with me or not, I still examine their statements. Even if a particular politician or religious authority agrees with my opinion, their views don’t feel fully legitimate until I’ve investigated them honestly.
My story is not unique. There are many thousands of people who are travelling along a similar path. They have been presented with a deep moral dilemma regarding an important personal part of themselves. They’ve had to seriously wrestle with what they know to be true, against the beliefs and actions of authority.
Once we break free of imitation and mechanical obedience, we begin to know freedom. This should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of criminality or as permission to harm others. Freedom is more than mere license. Nor is freedom the act of conforming to morality for morality’s sake. Society considers many things to be moral. Authority expects us to mechanically conform to social morality. By this definition, authority disapproves of individual virtue.
Unlike morality, virtue is a quality that is considered moment by moment. Virtue requires mindfulness of how one’s actions affect oneself and the well-being of others. Virtue transcends belief. Authority disapproves of virtue, because authority has no jurisdiction over virtue.
For example, authority might promote the subjugation and harming of certain individuals and enforce such actions by means of dogma or law. A virtuous person will question the wisdom of such words. Morality becomes harmful when it does not take virtue into consideration.
Without virtue, there is no freedom for clear thinking. Virtue is the continual process of enhancing personal and interpersonal well-being. Morality is enforced by fear of authority. Virtue is discovered and uncovered by thoughtful, personal reflection. A virtuous life is one lived in sincere humility with the aim of bettering oneself each day.
Authority rules by placing boundaries and limits. Virtue opens the mind to understanding that all of us are deserving of joy and true freedom.