Growing up Catholic, my siblings and I were taught many stories of saints and their heroic exploits in their quest to attain union with God. One of these was Thérèse of Lisieux, a young Frenchwoman who became a nun at 16 and died of tuberculosis at the early age of 24. She was an especially beloved saint of my family; one of my sisters is named after her.
Thérèse was a romantic and an idealist, and as a young girl, admired the glorious deaths of Christian martyrs and wished to emulate them. Realizing that she was unlikely to find herself in a situation where she could likewise be killed for the sake of her religion, she devised her own system for attaining heaven. She called it her “Little Way”, in which she would regularly perform acts of holiness in day-to-day life. The trials and tribulations of ordinary life would be elevated and be made important by virtue of their being endured with patience and good grace, and opportunities for sacrificing oneself for the good of others would be seized and fulfilled to their utmost, in imitation of the life of Christ.
I am a philosophical naturalist, and as such, I don’t share Thérèse’s enthusiasm for martyrdom, nor do I consider self-denialism a virtue in the way that she did. I believe that the natural world is all that exists and that the wonder of it consists in the fact that everything that does exist operates according to the same laws of nature everywhere throughout the universe. My sense of awe lies the realization that all of existence is intertwined in the complex interconnectedness of all of its parts, in one great cosmic ‘dance’. When I learn about some new amazing discovery or a wonderfully explanatory new philosophical or scientific theory, or spend time outdoors among the plants and animals or under the stars, I am transported as I never was in any religious service or activity I partook in when I was younger. In short, I find Spinoza’s God, unlike the God of Thérèse, the only admirable and wondrous one that has ever been proposed.
And as a member of an intelligent, hyper-social species, I also believe daily acts of generosity and kindness are not truly instances of self-denial but are a natural product of our psychology. Not only are we are at our best and happiest when we are good to one another, but our very survival is enhanced and more assured. Since we depend for our well-being and our very lives on the cooperation and respect of our fellow humans, kindness and generosity end up, naturally, being self-directed acts as well as acts performed for the sake of others, and vice-versa. I also believe that is wrong to throw away one’s life for the sake of an ideal: not only is life the most wonderful and precious ‘gift’ of the universe to be preserved and treasured, but it doesn’t belong only to oneself. One’s life also belongs to friends, family, and colleagues, and to a lesser but very important extent, to the rest of humanity and other living things. Our lives are not really our own to give, but to live, and I believe there are only very few circumstances in which it is best, or right, to self-immolate. The longer we live, the more opportunity we have to do good in this amazing universe we find ourselves in. That’s my ideal.
Yet I also think that Thérèse hit on something vital. Like Aristotle before her, she realized that habit is essential to the practice of virtue. The more we do good, the more likely we are to do more good.
In this way, virtue or goodness-as-habit is analogous to the essential role of exercise and nutrition in sculpting and maintaining a strong, healthy body. While we are born with the ability to process food into tissue, to build muscle, to increase endurance, to prolong our lives (some of us with greater genetically-given potential for these than others), these abilities are only expressed and persist based on our daily practices. If they are not maintained, they are lost, and if they are not built up, they languish. For our bodies to perform well, we must exercise, eat nutritious food and not too much of it, drink enough water, moderate our intake of potentially toxic substances, and so on. Without these good health-building and health-sustaining habits, our bodies weaken and gradually wither away; if we have not maintained regular healthy habits, we find ourselves hard-pressed, if at all able, to perform acts of vigor and strength when suddenly called upon to do so. Likewise, a person who is not habitually generous, kind, patient, amiable, companionable, and so forth, will more likely react to daily circumstances much more poorly than if they had made it a habit to act well.
So I propose that we take the best wisdom of Thérèse, combine it with that of Aristotle and the findings of modern evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and human psychology, and devise a new Little Way. Here, we can substitute ‘goodness’, with our focus on the flourishing and happiness of ourselves and those around us, for ‘holiness’, which is God-centered. We can consciously make goodness a habit, by doing our best to go through daily life choosing to do each thing the best way we can, to be kind, patient, and generous with one another in all the opportunities that daily life presents to us, and to take care of this beautiful world we find ourselves in.
Like Thérèse and I’m sure like many of you, dear readers, I often have idealistic longings to perform admirable, heroic exploits. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to play an essential role in finding the cure for cancer or malaria, or to solve the problems of child poverty, domestic violence, or world hunger, or to liberate women in societies that still subjugate and oppress them? Most of us, sadly, don’t have the money, time, or prodigious talent to accomplish these great tasks. We have the responsibility to earn money for ourselves and for our families, to keep ourselves mentally and physically healthy according to our needs, and to protect, nourish, and support the communities we find ourselves in. So for the most part, we must be content with living more or less ordinary lives.
But our lives can be meaningful and impactful, all the same. We can make one another that much happier and healthier by doing all those little things that all too often we neglect to do when we forget that each choice we make, each action we perform, can really have a big effect. We can make it our habit give a friendly smile to those who catch our eye as we pass them on the sidewalk. When we go out to eat, we can smile and greet our waiter politely, wait patiently when they’re busy and our food arrives a little late, and tip generously, always dining out according to the maxim that if we can’t afford to tip well, then we can’t afford to eat out (especially since in the United States, at least, people in the restaurant industry are poorly paid and depend on us tippers for decent wages). We can thank the salesperson in the store for trying to help us find what we are looking for, and avoid acting ‘entitled’ by taking our disappointment out on them when we think the price is too high or what we wanted is not in stock or available immediately, and we can avoid making a mess when looking through the racks and shelves. We can forgo frittering away quite so much money on luxuries and trifles (while remembering that treating ourselves sometimes is important to self-care), donating some of that money instead to worthy causes. We can do our best to tear ourselves away from Facebook clickbait or watching too much TV or other less important projects to give our loved one a call or drop them a line a little more often (I beg your forgiveness, by own loved ones, this sort of neglect is one of my besetting sins!). We can get to work a little earlier each day (lateness is another one of my besetting sins) and take some of the burden off our colleagues, and try to be as helpful and patient as we can when things get stressful and hectic. As my poor husband can attest, we can all help with the dishes a little more often (one of my most hated chores, so my beleaguered spouse all too often picks up on my slack in this regard). We can be less ‘trashy’ inhabitants of this beautiful world by bringing our own bags and travel cups when going out, buying less packaged goods, and picking up litter we find while out on a walk, hiking, or camping. We can neuter our pets, feed stray ones when appropriate, and always be kind and respectful to animals, as our fellow inhabitant of this rich and fascinating planet we are so lucky to find ourselves on.
By making goodness a habit in our daily lives, even in the little things, we can end up doing more good throughout our lives than we otherwise might have by focusing just on heroic and exciting exploits. And if we do find ourselves in a situation where more heroic action is needed, we will be ready, willing, and able to meet it, with our moral muscles strengthened, our patience of greater endurance, our energy increased and up to the task. The Little Way of Goodness, turns out, in the end, to be really not so little after all.
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Sources and inspiration:
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross.
Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Martin, Marie-Françoise-Thérèse. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy