The forgotten virtue of reverence, as classicist and writer Professor Paul Woodruff suggests, may very well be the mother of all virtues – the virtue that makes all of the other virtues possible. The virtue that ensures that the center will hold and that civil society will, indeed, be possible.
But, as long as there is gravity, won’t the center still hold? And, what’s the purpose of having laws if not to ensure an orderly and civil society? Isn’t respect more important than reverence? What’s the difference between the two anyway?
So many questions. The most important of which may be: Why should we spend time thinking about virtues at all when there is so much else to worry about these days in Baltimore? Will virtues help us eradicate poverty? Will virtues help us reduce violence and crime? Will they create better, more equitable educational opportunities? Help us address addiction and other serious health issues? Will virtues stimulate economic growth in Baltimore? Will they help strengthen our most vulnerable neighborhoods?
As much of a “lost art” as virtues are today, their sagacity and power were not lost to the ancients. In Plato’s Pythagoras, we find this bit of wisdom:
Whenever they gathered into groups [early human beings] would do wrong to each other, because they did not yet have the knowledge of how to form society. As a result they would scatter again and perish. And so Zeus, fearing that our whole species would be wiped out, sent Hermes to bring Reverence and Justice to human beings, in order that these two would adorn society and bind people together in friendship.
This week at Caroline Center, we welcomed our 64th class of nursing assistant and pharmacy technician trainees at Somerset Street and Gibbons Commons/St. Agnes Hospital – seventy-six courageous and dedicated women who have committed to preparing for new, sustainable careers. Within the first week of their arriving, I experienced firsthand one of the chief reasons our program is so consistently successful. We haven’t forgotten the wisdom and practical power of virtues – or “values” as we call them at Caroline Center.
Values are woven into the fabric of our teaching and career skills training at Caroline Center; but, they really shine, as individual stars in a constellation, in the “Values Curriculum,” with which our trainees begin each day. In their first week, Caroline Center trainees learn about the value of respect – seeking to properly define it; to fully understand its meaning; and, to know how to apply it.
Paul Woodruff’s book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me provided excellent teaching and critical thinking support for my trainees’ discussion. We learned that respect has reverence as its guide star. Paul Woodruff says, “. . . without reverence, things fall apart. People do not know how to respect each other and themselves. Without reverence, we cannot explain why we should treat the natural world with respect.” (p. 13) We explored how reverence creates the capacity for respect – how it guides us in giving proper respect and permits us to withhold respect when it is warranted.
We discussed the lessons that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ grandmother imparted to him – lessons that seemed, on the face of it, solely about respecting his teachers at school, but they were really his grandmother’s way of teaching him “how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing – [himself].” The discovery that he was not “an innocent;” that his motives were not always “filled with unfailing virtue” meant that he was fully a part of the human condition that pertains to us all. (pp. 29-30)
As human beings, we are not perfect; but, as one trainee reminded us this morning: “Respect begins with you. How you express respect is a reflection of yourself – of who you are and who you want to be.”
In the coming weeks, Caroline Center trainees will delve more deeply into the virtues and values beyond respect that will help to ensure their success in both work and life. We will explore the contemporary meanings and applications of the values of: integrity, empowerment, determination, responsibility, compassion, loyalty, community, diversity, and personal growth.
And, we will, I am certain, allow each of the values to shine as individual stars under the celestial canopy of reverence.