This past weekend, a bunch of us had the chance to attend a workshop on The Virtues Project. If you haven’t heard of them, they give seminars/courses and produce materials that promote virtues—spiritual values that are independent of any particular religious tradition—in all walks of life. The organizers of a local Bahá’í summer camp arranged the workshop for their camp counsellors, but opened it to the wider community too, so there was a nice mix of all kinds of people in attendance, including plenty of children’s class teachers. I took a few notes from the presentation and thought I’d present them here in point form.
Why are virtues important?
- Virtues are the building blocks of the spirit. We are at our happiest when we are developing our virtues. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy.” (Paris Talks, p.72)
- When we cultivate virtues in ourselves, we’re not the only ones who benefit. To paraphrase the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse, cultivating virtue in ourselves has an effect on our families, our villages, our nations, and the world. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá declared: “Until the moral degree of the nations is advanced and human virtues attain a lofty level, happiness for mankind is impossible.”
How can we help encourage the development of virtues?
- The Virtues Project lists five strategies to help “bring virtues to life”: Speak the Language of the Virtues, Recognize Teachable Moments, Set Clear Boundaries, Honor the Spirit, and Offer Companioning. We covered the first two in more depth, and only briefly touched on the others due to lack of time. My notes are mainly about the first (speaking the language of the virtues). All of the strategies work together and complement each other.
How do we speak the language of virtues?
- When speaking the language of virtues with someone, we avoid: shaming (“Why can’t you be like so-and-so?”), nagging (“Goofing off again? I told you to stop!”), rescuing (…them from their problems), advising (giving advice on what they should do) and labelling. Instead, we: acknowledge (“That was very kind of you to offer her your seat.”), correct (“What will help you be patient until story time is done?”), and guide or instruct (“I need your help to prepare the room for class.”).
- When we use the language of virtues, we also refrain from complimenting (“You’re so honest!”), choosing to acknowledge virtues instead (“What you just did was very honest!”). The reasoning is that we all have honest moments and not-so-honest moments; no one shows a virtue 100% of the time. Compliments can sound hollow and create guilt (“If only you knew about that time I lied to Mrs. So-and-so…”), but giving a virtue acknowledgement helps others to identify which actions are virtuous and encourages them to develop the virtue in question.
What does the language of virtues look like?
- The grammar of the language of virtues looks like this:
Opening phrase • virtue • situation.
- Acknowledgement might look like this:
It was • thoughtful • of you to bring cookies for the rest of the class.
Thank you for your • cooperation • in helping to clear the table.
- Correction and instruction might look like this:
Remember, we show • respect • and stay silent when someone is speaking.
I’m going to ask for your • self-discipline • as we enter the museum.
Although the workshop was a little too short to fully cover all the material (usually they’re a few days long instead of just an afternoon), It was very thought-provoking. As we went through it, I kept thinking of situations in which I could have used a virtues focus to help address problematic behaviour in our children’s class—or even just encourage the children better by pointing out a particular virtue they’re showing. Since our duty as children’s class teachers is to mine the gems of virtue from the children’s souls and help mankind to benefit therefrom, it makes sense that we should pay special attention to virtues and spiritual qualities, use language that puts them centre stage. The facilitator was careful to note that language on its own doesn’t fix every problem, and that other strategies are needed depending on the situation—that’s why The Virtues Project gives five strategies. When we get the hang of them all, we can tell which ones are appropriate at which time. All in all, it was a very helpful and inspiring workshop, and a good complement to our existing Ruhi training. It made me want to attend another, fuller training sometime for sure, to explore how to apply a virtues focus in different, more complex situations.