It seems to me to be a matter of common sense that vices are best treated by their corresponding virtues.
For instance, the prideful man must pray for and practice humility, the selfish and greedy man must look for opportunities to be generous and thus grow in charity, and so on and so forth.
This is common sense when dealing with our own spiritual lives, however I think the maxim is similarly useful when encountering vices in others.
It is easy for the vices (or perceived vices) in others to not only provoke the same vice in us, but for us to somehow feel justified in reacting thus.
For instance, when faced with someone who seems to be in the throes of pride – as evidenced by grasping for attention, easily taking offense, seeking constant affirmation, acting self-concerned, etc – how quickly we respond in a prideful iteration of our own, and think it somehow neutral or even virtuous!
I often find myself for instance actively ignoring or shushing a young, loud relative I perceive as prideful. In my heart, I somehow feel like i’m teaching them a lesson or doing right by “not encouraging them”.
But what’s really going on here? Why are they seeking attention so? Why are they being loud? Why do they seem self-concerned? Certainly there may be an element of pride there, though that is between them and God. But could it also be that they are insecure? That they are hurt or lonely? How quickly my judgement of them causes me to respond with the same vice I presume to perceive.
I often wonder how many other people whose brokeness and insecurities cause them to act out, have only been pushed further into themselves because I myself have ignored them or responded with rudeness.
The younger relative I previously mentioned has many behavioral problems. Oftentimes he will be very short with people or even begin to throw a tantrum when he is riled up.
In the recent years, my interactions with him have become an insightful and humbling source of self-reflection for me.
I noticed that while his behavioral issues and his tantrums and his attention seeking was a great source of annoyance to me, I always responded with my own vices, and at the same time felt justified in my mind.
I would be “short” with him, because I felt he needed to be quieted. I would talk harshly because I thought he needed to be taught a lesson. I ignored him because I didn’t want to reward bad behavior. All these rationalizations contented me for years, but I have begun to realize more and more how I was simply justifying responding to vice (or percieved vice) with my own.
This of course brings me back to my original suggestion: We must not only to respond to our own vices by pursuing their corresponding virtues, but we must always seek to respond to any vice (or perceived vices) in others with the corollary virtue also.
What would happen if we responded to the seemingly prideful and self-absorbed person with humility? Listening to them, letting them be first, etc. What would happen if we responded to the selfish and greedy person with charity? Being generous to them, giving even though we are liable to be taken advantage of?
Certainly such acts would seem to follow the biblical call to “love your enemies and be good to those who persecute you”. In doing so, not only do we grow in love but we can offer up our sufferings for the good of such people and our own souls.
However, I think there is also some very smart but simple psychology going on here also.
We are always responsible for our own vice – I bring up psychology not to suggest sin is simply a “social issue” or something like that. However, we can see by a mere moment of self-reflection that a lot of these vices are often rooted in deeper fears and brokenesses
In our own lives such a realization should be no cause for us to justify our sin – we are still responsible. However we should use such a realization to bring us to empathy and mercy whenever we begin to feel judgmental of others.
Often, when we act out of pride or vanity, some of the driving forces of these are our insecurities, loneliness, depression, lack of (healthy) confidence, etc. Also, many who are prone to selfishness and greed have a deep seated fear of want, fear of dependence, fear of being taken advantage of, etc.
Again, these can be no excuse for our own personal vices, however they should come into play when we deal with others.
When we encounter vices in others or what we perceive to be vices when we are annoyed or offended and are tempted to respond by our own acts of pride, selfishness, gossip, ill-will, etc, I believe we ought to attempt to recognize what virtue is needed in the situation and attempt to fill that need.
Consider the great and wise prayer attributed Saint Francis of Assisi:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen”
What it comes down to is this: whether there is a lack of God’s grace in another person or whether the lack is within us, our proper response should be to try to fill it with his love.
If there is a vice in another person, we should respond to it with virtue. Furthermore, if there is a loneliness, brokeness, or fear that is causing a person to act out, we must respond as an “instrument of peace” rather than responding with our own vices.
It should not only be our duty but our immense joy as Christians to love even the hateful person, to forgive the unforgiving person, to trust the mistrustful, to humble ourselves toward the prideful, and to give generously even to the greedy.
Our human instinct is to worry about being taken advantage of in these situations. To worry that all of our good work will simply be sucked into the black hole of anothers’ vices. However what a great honor and power to share in the sufferings of our Lord! Surely to be virtue in the face of vice embodies the very dying and rising we are called to.
As a final thought, consider the effects of responding to vices with virtue. Since the fall, sin and its effects have continued from one human to another like dominoes. We receive original sin, we experience personal sin, we experience the effects of sin, and we then respond with our own sins. As a result of this cycle, sin and its effects continue to compound and rebound and resound throughout the ages.
A grave but glorious question every human should consider is this: What will my effect be? As a member of the human race, I receive not only the tendency to sin myself but I experience the effects of the sins of others. Though this cannot be avoided, I and I alone can decide what happens to the sins that touch me.
Either these sins will be passed on, repeated, or even multiplied through my actions or… the sin will end in me.
I find this an astounding proposition: I cannot avoid the death, pain suffering, violence, fear, etc of this world, but I CAN be sure that they end with me.
I can emulate my lord in gladly accepting the pain, suffering, violence, fear, and other effects of sin that come to me, and letting them die in me. Christ took our sin and allowed it to be nailed to the cross with Him – in fact, to die with Him.
What if we were to emulate this! What if the annoyance, drama, gossip, selfishness, violence, greed, pride, lust and other vices that we encountered in the world were met with virtue in us? What if we were to take a stand and not allow these vices and their effects to live when we encountered them? What if we gladly soaked them up, gladly accepted the pain and suffering and turned it into only greater virtue, through God’s grace?
It is our choice. Either we are willing proponents of the infectious plague of sin and its effects, or we are those receive it, accept it, and let it die with us.
Thus, whenever we encounter sin or its effects – whether a vice in ourselves, a vice in others, or even simply the echoing effects of sin in the loneliness, insecurity, fear, brokeness, and others defects that cause so much acting out and unrest between humans – we should constantly exhort ourselves to joyfully embrace the situation and pursue the necessary virtues in it.
Because of Christ’s victory on the cross, the pursuit of virtue allows us not only to be healed of vice in ourselves but to heal and comfort others who suffer the same disease.
THIS is the greatness we are called to. THIS is the mission to which He has destined us. To be a channel of His peace wherever there is not peace, and to be His candle wherever there is darkness.
Every life is march from innocence, through temptation, to virtue or vice.
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.
Gilbert K. Chesterton
If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
C. S. Lewis