“Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right.”– Susan Sontag
There is a lake not too far from my house that is the temporary home to hundreds of thousands of snow geese and tens of thousands of tundra swans each February or early March. They stop here to fatten up on the leftover grain in farm fields surrounding the lake before the long trek to their nesting grounds much farther north.
A road that is only open between March 1 and November 1 each year loops around the lake, providing bird watchers views of the lake from various vantage points, plus access to ponds normally hidden from view. This six-mile loop is ideal for running; the scenery is stunning and there is very little traffic.
By the time my hubby Bill and I met our friend Al there for a run last week, the swans and geese were mostly gone except for a few stragglers. We planned to meet at the visitors’ center parking lot to do our 10k training run, but our plans were thwarted when we were greeted by the sight of fire and rescue trucks and a fire policeman blocking access to the parking lot.
We found out they were searching for a missing person. A fifty-something-year-old man had parked his car in the visitors’ center parking lot last Friday night and disappeared. On Tuesday, horses, dogs, helicopters, drones, and rescue teams combed the wooded hills surrounding the lake for some trace of the man but came up empty.
We parked in a different parking lot and set out on our run. As we ran, I explained to Al why Bill and I ran the Marine Corps 17.75k race for guaranteed access to the Marine Corps Marathon (you can read that story here).
Al has a million running stories, most of them hilarious. He tells them with self-deprecating humor and the innate understanding of what makes a good punch line. Al was a high school chemistry teacher for 35 years and still teaches an introductory chemistry class or two at a local liberal arts college.
As we ran around the lake we swapped running stories, then Al described a sermon he heard at church last Sunday which had a big impact on him.
Al described his pastor’s discussion of the slippery slope of ethics. If “A” is perfectly ethical behavior and “Z” is unmitigated evil, he observed that most people don’t go directly from A to Z.
We begin acting ethically, at A, then convince ourselves that B is acceptable. If there are no negative repercussions for B, we may look right, left and give C a try. If we don’t catch ourselves, we could wind up at K or even P. Most of us, thankfully, never get to Z.
The slippery slope often happens when we lie to cover up an embarrassing past behavior. One falsehood quickly multiplies, the deception mushrooms, and, before you know it, you are Lance Armstrong covering up years of taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Our values provide us with a moral compass to direct our actions and tell us what is acceptable behavior and what is not. We all have them. We got them from watching our parents, church leaders, teachers, and other mentors. They are attitudes we have adopted over time.
Values are internal and changeable. I may value patience, for example, while you believe patience is a waste of time. You may value bravery, while I think bravery is foolish. My values may change over time. The importance of showing kindness, for example, might increase as I get older.
Principles are different. They are an unchangeable set of rules that hold true for each individual. For example, one of my individual guiding principles is that I always feel better after a run. Running clears my head, calms my nerves, burns off excess energy, and gives me the opportunity to think.
Lots of people have similar principles; some can be almost universally applied, like “avoid negativity“. Whenever someone complains about the negativity rampant on social media, I always use the example of the running community on Twitter as a shining example of positive encouragement.
I follow a lot of runners on my Twitter account. The Twitter running community is supportive, engaged, and helpful. A typical exchange goes something like this: “I ran 5 miles this morning.” “Way to go!” “Great miles!” “Looking good!” I always come away from my Twitter feed feeling uplifted.
Another widely held principle is “live in the present“. This one is easy to see the advantages of, but very difficult to actually do. It’s hard to let go of the past and not think about the future. Humans have survived thousands of years by doing exactly those two things.
Learning from our mistakes and anticipating possible difficulties are good, but we get into trouble when we worry needlessly about past or future events over which we have little or no control.
Consistently following our principles leads to living a virtuous life. Our actions are in harmony with our values. We have free will; we have the ability to make our own choices regarding our actions. Being guided by principles helps to take the guesswork out of those choices.
So, if we know what our principles are, why do we not always live by them? Because it’s hard! Living a virtuous life is not easy. There are temptations to “cheat” around every corner. Sometimes it even seems like life rewards the “cheaters“.
Following our principles does not guarantee us a good life, but not following them will definitely lead to conflict, unhappiness, and a “gnawing of the heart“. It’s better to train ourselves to do hard things than to compromise our principles.
As Paul said in his Epistle to the Ephesians to encourage Christians to live a moral life, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love“. It is his way of encouraging us to stay at A, urging us to follow our moral compass.
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