Before the sun rose one weekday morning in late September, a group of middle- and high-school runners gathered outside of Baylor University’s football stadium under a streetlamp. I split them into training groups and sent them off with a plan, except for one 10th grader. “Stick with me today,” I told him. “No matter what, don’t let me drop you.”
We ran. We started slowly, talking about literature as we went (Dante’s Divine Comedy—a shared favorite). As we lapped the stadium, I gradually accelerated, clipping off 15-second-per-mile chunks from our pace. The final three miles we ran quickly, and, while we never stopped speaking altogether, we spoke less. Afterward, I showed him my watch. He was shocked. The final five kilometers of the run was quicker than he had raced a 5k the previous week. “You are faster than you think you are,” I told him. “If it helps to imagine Dante and me just ahead of you, do that, but you need to race at your ability level.”
Different Athletes, Different Training
There is something I learned while coaching, which seems obvious now. It was that, while I had the same goals for everyone on the team—to get faster, to become people of good character, and to have fun in the process—I could not coach them all in the same way to reach these goals.
Some of them were inclined toward half-heartedness, so I spoke firmly and pressed them to do more. Some of them were industrious, so I reminded them to rest. If some athletes mentioned discomfort, I encouraged them to be tough and to press through. If others mentioned discomfort, I assumed that something had gone terribly awry, and I addressed the problem immediately.
We are all warped boards, inclined toward manifold and often opposing vices, so the same guidance does not work for all of us. Again, I think this is fairly obvious. But the way New Year advice is often doled out, I might think there is only one kind of person in the world receiving it.
Aristotle wrote about arete (virtue), which is an excellence of a thing that makes it a good instance of its kind. For example, a knife’s purpose is to cut well, so a virtue of a knife is a sharp blade. A sharp blade makes it a good instance of its kind—a good knife—capable of fulfilling its function of cutting well. Virtues for humans are those qualities that make us good instances of our own kind (good humans), and some examples Aristotle provides are fortitude, wittiness, liberality, and temperance.
Aristotle introduces the idea of a virtue mean (1). A virtue is the “mean” of a passion—an intermediate condition. All virtues are the mean between two vices—a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. For example, a courageous person has a suitable amount of fear. If he has an excess of fear, he has the vice of cowardliness. If he has a deficient amount of fear, he has the vice of recklessness. A second example is that the witty person takes an appropriate amount of pleasure in jokes. If he takes an excessive amount of pleasure, he has the vice of buffoonery. If he is deficient in this respect, he has the vice of boorishness.
Depending on my vice inclinations, I should go about developing the virtues in different ways. For example, if I incline toward boorishness, I should try to prioritize humor—to joke more and to relish appropriate forms of humor when I encounter them. If, instead, I am a buffoon, I should not try to develop the virtue of wittiness by joking more. This would move me further from the virtue! Likewise, if I incline toward recklessness, it would not be productive for me to seek out more opportunities to stick my neck out. I should err in the other direction, evaluating risk and being more careful.
Aristotle puts it this way: “But one must examine what we ourselves readily incline toward, for some of us naturally incline toward some things, others to other things…. And we must drag ourselves away from it toward its contrary; for by leading ourselves far from error, we will arrive at the middle term, which is in fact what those who straighten warped lumber do (2).”
Our vices make us like warped lumber. Within reason, it can be helpful to err in the opposite direction to make corrections to our character.
Why This Matters
Every New Year, I notice rhetoric about self-improvements of various sorts, and much of it seems indifferent to the kind of people we are. There is advice to run more miles—as if more is always better. Some of us run plenty, and it might be prudent to take more rest days instead. There is advice to clean up our diets. But if someone is prone to fastidiousness—taking too much care to eat the right things—this may be truly bad advice. Rather, I would encourage someone like this to have more grace with herself—to figuratively “warp the board” back in the other direction.
Another New Year trope is the celebration of putting yourself first—”It’s my year!” “Time to focus on me!” “New year, new me!” Inarguably, self-care is important. This is the case, no matter what kind of lumber you are, even in normal times, let alone pandemics. But in the same way that I would not press a runner to be bolder in her acts of courage if she were inclined toward recklessness, I have reservations about insisting that a person really focus on herself and her personal journey in the coming year if she is dispositionally inclined toward a kind of self-serving myopia. Instead, I would suggest she see and respond to the needs of others. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we are not reliably good neighbors and we often prioritize our own comforts, at the cost of others. Maybe we should bend our lumber in the opposite direction.
New Year’s Resolutions
In the same way that I had to identify the dispositions of my athletes before I could effectively coach them to be their best, it takes a bit of self-knowledge to know what kind of lumber you are in order to profit from New Year advice. Maybe you truly are someone who needs to clean up your diet, add some mileage, dare greatly and courageously, or really focus on you this upcoming year, but the opposite might be true as well. You might be warped in a different direction.
Call for Comments
- To use Sabrina Little’s analogy, toward which direction is your lumber “warped?”
- And in what direction would you benefit from bending the boards?
- Nicomachean Ethics 1106a26-b28
- Nicomachean Ethics 1109b2-8