Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Moral Spaces: Gyms and Churches

Monday I wrote that being "moral" simply means making "virtuous" decisions - decisions that favor long-term goals over short-term goals (assuming our common long term goal of creating loving, compassionate relationships).

Simply make virtuous decisions, I write. Like it's easy.
But it is not easy.

Mine was next to a hamburger place. Not good.
Have you ever had a workout routine? If you're like me, you just started showing up at a gym and lifting weights and doing cardio stuff for a little while regularly through the week.

I went for about 3 weeks. I've been told that this is the cutoff - I am sore, the shiny gym now looks greasy, and I haven't really seen the progress I was looking for. Then, when I slipped and slept late, I couldn't motivate myself back onto the horse. Before long I was deriding exercisers as fit-nuts, beef-heads, and granola-munchers, and I sat on the couch with pride.

I think the same cycle happens when we make bad decisions. We ignore someone in need, or make selfish, callous, or short-sighted goals, and our long term goals turn into sour grapes. Only goody-shoes and hippies do these things, not people with real responsibilities, real jobs, in real life. Has this happened to you? I've used this kind of condescension so many times that I could write this ten different ways. Like when an essay convinces me that I shouldn't donate money because it creates a wellfare state, or when I use insulting, bigoted, or divisive words to seem tougher.

I slip into a rut or self-interest and short-term joys. These get in the way of real, long-term progress towards successes that I really do believe in, in theory.

And there's the rub. If we did everything that we should - in theory  - we would lead amazing lives of peace an compassion. But we aren't such rational animals. Although we might know what good is, and want to do good, and even understand the basic steps to doing good, we very often fail. We are fallible (that's the theology of sin, btw).

We can counteract this with communities, aka peer pressure. Intentional communities are groups of people with a basic common goal, like gym buddies, and like churches. Neighbors push us to do what's right for the group, to follow our stated, long-term goals. These communities can push us to be more "virtuous".

Don't just think of moralistic communities like churches, schools or reading groups. Our public headspace is flavored by a vague moralism, too. But this is evaporating as counter-cultures and alternative groups network worldwide, and grow in strength and confidence. Fifty years ago LGBT rights were extremely underground, opposed by a moralistic master-culture. Today, thanks in part to increased networking, LGBT is a part of our vague national/regional culture.

When I was exercising, I wish I had found some friends and made some commitments. If we were working together I think I would have been more successful in my fitness goals.

Going forward in a world with fewer moralistic intentional communities (aka Churches), look to the peer groups who affect your decisions. How do they affect you? Towards what goals to they push you - obvious and subconscious. When we take a moment to choose our groups, we are setting ourselves up for success.

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