Improvement as a Virtue

Improvement as a Virtue

David W. Hegg

Unless you're on a long-term media fast, or just disinterested in public conversations, you've no doubt realized just how tough it is to be in the public eye today. We have become a society of cynics, who feel obligated to audit and critique everyone. I chuckle that even this column, written by a volunteer, for a relatively small newspaper, is the target of some rather lengthy critiques from time to time. So, it comes as no surprise television news these days is given over to passing judgment on what every public figure does or says, be they politicians, movie stars, athletes or regular folks who find their 15 minutes in the public spotlight. 

The emergence of social media given the vehicle for public comment on everything. Our opinions fly through cyberspace like so many flies on a farm. We swarm our likes and dislikes, our criticisms and cynicisms, often without thought for the consequences. And we certainly enjoy doing it behind a keyboard, a safe distance from those whose thoughts, motives, and morals we impugn. We can lob verbal bombs from the friendly confines of our blog or smart phone. Turns out we're not only critical, we're also cowardly.

But criticism, however intended, also shines a spotlight on our own deficiences. I'm talking about the need for each of us to be personally invested in improving ourselves. Too often we jump on the ideas and motives of others while having no clear view of our own weaknesses, much less an intentional plan for personal improvement.

I have a friend named Craig who serves as the headmaster for a well-known school for the visually impaired. Years ago, when we were young, and working for the same company, we were talking about the future. He asked me what I wanted to be in 10 years, and I blurted out “I remember asking him what he wanted to be in 10 years, and his answer was both shocking, and profoundly simple. He said "better, I want to be better."

Since that day I have often thought about Craig’s answer because it delivers a much-needed impact today. Beneath his profound reply was a well-thought out determination to both grade himself as a person, and never be complacent to remain as he was. He believed the unexamined life wasn't worth living, but that wasn't all. He also believed an intentional desire for personal improvement was absolutely necessary to live life to the fullest. His greatest criticism was always reserved for himself, and he used it as a means of pursuing excellence as a life-long learner. It also helped him maintain an attractive sense of genuine humility, which today seems almost lost on many, especially those given to speaking loudly of others' shortcomings.

These days our society has no shortage of people and plans and thoughts and ideas to critique. And apparently, doing so has become somewhat of a national sport. But those who play it so often and so well would do better if they backed off and used some of that sharpened critique on themselves.

In fact, all of us should give some thought to what Jesus said:  “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye."

 In a free society, the ability to express our opinions on just about everything is an important safeguard, and I am not suggesting in any way that this freedom should be curtailed. What I am suggesting is that we recognize the first target of our critique should be our own lives, and that an intentional commitment to improving our virtues, knowledge, and character ought to become a passion.

Set your goal that a year from now you'll be better in some important area. A better husband, a better wife, a better parent, a better student, a better friend, a better citizen. But when it happens don't be surprised if someone criticizes you for the effort. After all, some folks apparently don't have much else to do, and their vision is also a bit skewed. Turns out its hard work looking around that log.