Signal Virtue: Mirror of God’s Majesty

Virtue: Carry the conversation to a higher level

Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 1,000 characters) about a time in your life when this positive trait or virtue contributed to or created a situation that had a positive impact on your life.
I’d like to think that I do this all the time. It is my job, after all. To create conversations with my students and carry them to a higher level. But I am having a hard time thinking of particular instances.

It is like having to describe a particular fencing bout rather than the set of all fencing bouts. Some touches stand out, some bouts stand out, but only because I have fenced so many. Every individual bout is in some way the sum of every bout I have ever fenced, the bout of the moment a synecdoche for the set of all.

Just as every saint in his or her particularity reflects the image and likeness of God

There was a moment in class on Wednesday when the students were talking about canons and how they work, and I showed them this graphic of the cross-references in Scripture.

As Professor Peterson likes to explain, the Bible is not a single work, but a set of works, a library of books compiled by generations over centuries, written and rewritten in reference to itself. But the books now included in the Scriptures are not the only works that refer to these stories, nor is there such a thing as a single canon of Scripture. Protestant Bibles omit certain books that Catholic and Orthodox Bibles include, and Jewish Bibles do not, of course, include the New Testament. And as every fan of Dan Brown knows, there were other texts that never made it in, even in antiquity.

The students made various arguments about why you might make such distinctions between the proper stories and the accretions. One argued: “You might want to purify the stories, get back to their original telling.” To which I responded: ”You’ve just re-invented the Reformation.” Another suggested: “You need to be able to make a list of which stories belong.” To which I rejoined: “And you’ve just re-invented the Council of Trent.”

What began as a conversation about fan fiction and the desire to be inside the beloved story ended as a demonstration of the problem of constructing tradition and faith.
Alternative outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, so that it might have turned out even better.
Listening. I need to practice listening. I did better on Wednesday than I have done in other classes this quarter, but I know it is something I need to work on.

When the students say something that I like and that I think can move the conversation along productively, I try to reinforce it by interrupting them and marking what they’ve said so that the other students hear it, but this technique can backfire. I let them continue after I interrupt, but it can jar.

I would say that it is easier when I am speaking one-on-one with a student, but I have the same tendency to get excited when I hear something that I think is particularly good. My technique when students come to talk with me about their papers is to get them to tell me what they think they would like to write about. If I let them talk long enough, almost invariably they solve the problem themselves, to which I respond: “See, you already know what you want to write!” But it is hard for me to leave it there, for them to wrestle with. I like to try to tell them why what they have said is so exciting to me.

I have a harder time with colleagues. We have a fairly brutal campus culture at Chicago. Visitors to our workshops often remark how the conversations that they have with us about their papers are more demanding than any they have experienced elsewhere. We push and we push and we push to get each other to clarify our arguments, which can be unsettling at the best of times. I myself do not tend to take it well when I feel like colleagues and students are making suggestions at odds with my own thinking. I like being in charge of the conversation. There, I said it!

But in truth it is rare for someone to suggest something that I have not thought of, at least if we are talking about my own research. It happens more often in class with my undergraduates, that the conversation gets to a level I had not planned.
Guidelines for general improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have improved things even more for yourself or others in that particular situation, please think about this virtue in more general terms. How could you work on capitalizing on this positive trait in general, so that you or others that you care about benefit as much as possible?
I want to find more people to talk with about the things that I have been studying. About mythology and devotion and the ways in which people use stories to give purpose to their lives.

I worry that I am missing conversations that others are having, but other than Professor Peterson, I have not found colleagues who seem to be thinking in these terms. Some of it is serendipity, I know. You need to frame the question, then the answers will come. But how is it that I can find so many students who share my interests and so few colleagues?

Professor Peterson has talked about how these kinds of conversations tend to work only down the dominance hierarchy, less often laterally or up. Which is to say: my students will listen to me and help me move the conversation to a higher level, but it is harder for my academic superiors or peers.

Do I have peers whom I find it hard to listen to? (I’ll wait, I’m sure that was painful if the coffee was hot.) Of course we are in competition with each other. Of course we want to claw our way up the dominance hierarchy where, according to the Pareto distribution, there are only a very few places at the top. But what happens when you get to the top and there is no one to talk to?

I spend a lot of time talking to God. Heh. No false humility here! But I do. My blog is an exercise in talking with God, an ongoing prayer to be wielded by God. I also talk all the time with the authors whom I read, constantly pushing myself to learn more, think more deeply about why they have posed the questions that they have. I want to be part of their story, to find myself in the same story with Tolkien and Lewis and Augustine and Rupert of Deutz. I want to be cross-referenced into their lives.

I want to be Wisdom. I can’t marry her, not like Solomon. Or like Christ. That would seem to be a man’s role.

What is my role as a woman, except to be beautiful--and terrifying--so as to open men’s eyes?
LOL! I can tell already that acknowledging my virtues and thinking about how to work with them is going to be harder than acknowledging my faults. I am good at mea culpa. I am going to have to bring myself kicking and screaming to talk about what I think are my strengths.

--From Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring: Virtues program.

Image: Chris Harrison


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