Most of us know the difference between good and evil, but have you ever really stopped to think about why the things we think of as good are good and why the things we think of as evil are evil?
Why is it that we know we should try to be selfless, honest, diligent, compassionate, and kind. Why are these things known as “good” qualities?
Why is it that we know we shouldn’t be immodest, spiteful, dishonest, careless, violent, and cruel? Why are these things known as “bad” qualities?
We’ve internalized these moral codes so innately that we rarely stop to think of why it’s so. Virtues are things that we associate with preschool or Sunday School or our parents lecturing us as kids. They’re things that we know we should do but how much do we consciously think of them as adults?
When we do think of it at all, most of us chalk up virtue to making the world a better place. We all would be better off if everyone lived according to the good principles and avoided the bad principles. We could avoid crime and war and brutality and terror if we all obeyed our better natures.
But I think virtue goes farther than that, and I think it’s an important reason why virtue is such a paramount concern to storytellers from time immemorial: Virtue works.
When you stop to think about it, virtue is almost always about putting others before yourself and setting aside short term temptation in favor of long term rewards. I think the reason we’ve internalized these qualities as doing the right thing is because this is what we know actually works. We’ve known it as long as we’ve told stories.
Popular culture loves to celebrate short term vices (“Greed is good,” “I’m not here to make friends,” “I’m looking out for Number One”), but those temptations come back to get you. There’s a reason we’re drawn to the good sheriff goes riding off into the distance and the good knight slays the dragon and Harry Potter beat Voldemort. It’s not the way the world should be, it’s the way the world really is.
I’m not naïve enough to think that only good people succeed and only bad people fail or that bad things only happen to bad people. Clearly there are evil people in the world who have been quite successful.
But haven’t we seen evil catch up with enough people and virtue and hard work rewarding enough people to see that good wins in the end at least most of the time? Haven’t we all had our greatest successes and satisfactions when we did the right thing and triumphed after a stretch of diligent work? Haven’t we all helped people and felt our efforts return tenfold?
The hardest part, of course, is living up to our better selves, and I don’t know anyone who succeeds 100% of the time, least of all me. But in a culture that too often tries to make the easy path appealing and glamorous, sometimes it’s worth remembering that the long, difficult road is the way to the greatest rewards.
Parts of this post are excerpted from an interview I did with Writer Unboxed.
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Art: Cover of “Songs of Innocence and Experience” – William Blake