Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Virtual Virtues

On Valentine's Day I offered a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt. Its gist was that success comes to those who know how to get along with other people.

It sounds a lot easier than it is. There are many reasons why people have trouble connecting, but today I want to emphasize one in particular. It involves a situation where someone feels that he is connecting, only he is not. He has established a virtual connection, not a real one.

By that I mean that some people do not understand what it is to connect with another person. They believe that when they care about that person they have made a meaningful connection.

The problem is: caring is not a real virtue. It does not really connect your with another person. I am calling it a virtual virtue, a short-cut that makes you feel you are connected when you are not. Better yet, when someone calls you out on your failure to connect you can trot out your virtual virtue and fill the room with your protestations about how deeply deeply you care.

Take a man who feels oceans of love for his wife; he cares about her more than about life itself. Then, he forgets their anniversary; he ignores her birthday and Valentine's Day. In short, he never makes the kinds of small gestures that really connect people.

Were he to remember her birthday and celebrate it properly, that would constitute a real virtue. And if he took a few extra minutes to make her coffee in the morning, that would also be a real virtue.

Or take this example. One day you send a gift to a friend. The friend is so overwhelmed with gratitude that he forgets to send a thank-you note. Should we say that he is grateful? Not at all. He feels virtual gratitude. Real gratitude occurs when the emotion is transformed into a social gesture. Raw emotion-- whether it is care or gratitude or love-- is always virtual.

Perhaps you believe that offering a bunch of flowers cheapens your feelings. Surely I am not suggesting that a consumerist gesture would properly express true love. Actually, I am. If you cannot even be bothered to make the smallest gesture, then your feelings are more virtual than real.

How did we get to this point? Here's one hypothesis. A century or so ago Freud invented a form of psychotherapy that forbid any and all real connection between patient and therapist. He created psychoanalysis as a hotbed, or hotcouch, of virtual virtues.

Psychotherapy that has suffered Freud's influence has spawned its share of virtual connections which have led to virtual relationships which have occasionally ended in real divorces. I think we all know that there are better ways to get in touch with reality.

The moral of the story: it is not enough to feel loving care or even caring love. It is not even close to to being enough. If you want to improve your relationships, get along better with people, abandon your faith in virtual virtues and start cultivating some real ones.

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