There are many virtues we are instructed to live by, but for some reason, the virtue of grace has been the hardest for me to understand. I think it’s because living with grace is intangible and unseen. The virtue of temperance is easy to see, because I can physically calculate how many chocolate cake pieces I am eating, or how many hours I am spending on video games. The virtue of justice is easy to see, because I can tell whether or not I have stolen something, whether or not I committed adultery. The virtue of courage, although slightly intangible, can be seen whether or not I decide to face my fear of heights, or whether or not I decide to speak up when I see an injustice caused.
But, grace as a virtue serves as an underlying current, the motivation for behaviors, something that often does not get recognized, and is not at all seen.
Grace is offering forgiveness when it is not necessarily earned: Often times, we see forgiveness as something someone else has to do. They MUST apologize to us, repent, and own up their own actions. They MUST show us five ways in which they are going to change and never do it again. They MUST buy us a Starbucks gift card and shower us with affection for a week. However, we can’t expect people to act in certain ways, admitting that you were at fault is a very detrimental blow to one’s ego, and sometimes, an apology may never come. Grace is learning to find forgiveness within ourselves.
And, with forgiveness, living with grace is also not holding grudges. We have this tendency to say, “You did this six months ago”, and, “You said this one time”, that we forget people are fluid creatures. Montgomery Gentry, in one of my favorite songs, sings, “Against all odds, against the grain, love finds a way, some people change”. Yes, perhaps I did do that six months ago, and perhaps I did say that one time, but the person I am now is hopefully not who I was then, and living with grace is recognizing that these were learning moments and is about moving away from those past experiences.
I write about my mom all the time, and one of the most important lessons she has taught me is to have this ability to forgive what happened in the past and look towards the future (it is much more difficult than it sounds). When I moved back into her house after I graduated college, we got into some disagreement, and she ‘kicked me out’ and took away the car (I am sure my reactions were a little stronger than what she had intended). I had to call my dad at 10:30 PM to come pick me up, slept on his couch, and moved all my stuff out the next day. My boyfriend at the time let me drive his truck until I could find my own transportation. Nevertheless, I felt like she abandoned me, ruthlessly fed to me to the wolves, thus my mom and I stopped speaking for a few months. However, there came a time when I had to learn to forgive her. I had to recognize that her actions were ones of emotional desperation–that tension built so high and she felt at such an end that she had no other choice but to kick me out. And, as we started talking again, we started mending those bridges and apologizing to each other, I had to learn that she was not the same mom that kicked me out, that she grew from this experience, and if she could take it back, she probably would.
Grace is learning to relinquish your own desires for the greater good of someone else’s: As humans, we are all selfish beings. We all want to be in power all the time. We want our desires of belonging, and safety, and self-actualization to be met. When we are hungry, we want to be the first ones in the lunch line. When we have places to be, we want to be the first ones off the stoplight. When we get in a conflict with our significant others, we want to make sure our points get heard, because these things make us feel better.
I see this all the time, especially as our divorce rates continue to climb; “I want custody on Christmas so that I don’t have to be alone during the holidays”, “I don’t want to buy you school supplies because that is supposed to be your dad’s responsibility”, “I can’t come to your game tonight because it’s your mom’s turn to come”.
However, living with grace means sometimes pocketing our own desires, swallowing our pride, and giving those opportunities up for someone else, who perhaps might be in more of a need. My dad always serves as an excellent example of this. My dad is a man who lives for other people, and is constantly putting other people’s desires before his own. When we were in high school, my dad let us drive his car to work, while he drove the potentially hazardous Spidey-mobile. When I would come home in college, my dad would wash and fold my laundry for me, without even being asked, because he knew I was stressed out enough. And, to this day, when I go to his house for dinner, my dad is always cutting up my meat, interrupting his meal to get me ketchup, taking back my dishes to the sink. My dad is never in a rush, and always conscientious of other people. He parks in the back of the parking lot, just in case someone else needs the closer spot. He never takes more than he needs. He gave up his Saturdays to drive me to ballet practice. When my parents divorced, he made the sacrifices to let my mom keep the house, and the kids, because he understands that the biosphere of human existence is much greater than himself.
And, living with grace also means deterring from retaliation and revenge. We always have this tendency to one up other people, to accuse, “I know I said this, but YOU said this”, to state “I know that I did this, but YOU did this”, to argue “I know I hurt your feelings, but YOU hurt my feelings worse”. We say these things, because we want OUR voice to be heard, and we want OUR feelings to be expressed, and we want to be in control of the situation. We don’t necessarily care about the other person, because what is important is that OUR desires get met.
But, at the end of the day, the only issues retaliation and revenge solve are issues of our own personal feelings, and sometimes, for the greater good of others, we must learn to stifle our own desires, and find other avenues to express our feelings, because perhaps it is not for the greater good for me to scream and yell at other people–it is Utilitarianism–what is right, or ethical, is what serves the largest amount of people.
Grace is patience: Patience is it’s own separate virtue.
As an enlightened individual, it is sometimes very frustrating to watch people make disastrous decisions, mainly because you learned those same lessons the hard way as well, you know the pain and suffering involved, and you don’t want to see those you care about go through the same feelings of pain and suffering. But, as we all know, sometimes we do need to learn the hard way, and no matter how much we try to point those lessons out to other people, our efforts will feel failed.
We would all admit that we make LOTS of mistakes when we first start teaching. In fact, the whole first year is plagued with mistakes. One of the first lessons I ever learned was, when you say something, you don’t ever go back on your word. If you don’t let one student turn in a late essay, then none of your students get to turn in late essays. If one student is allowed to be on his phone during a movie, then all students are allowed to be on their phones during a movie. If one student gets in trouble for her belly hanging out, then all students need to get in trouble for their bellies hanging out. I learned this lesson the hard way, when I had some really nasty parent backlash, some ruined relationships, and was forced to amend my policies. I remember coming home, feeling so defeated, so cornered, so inadequate. And, whenever I see my fellow peers make the same mistakes, those same ego-depleting feelings come up. I want to caution them, warn them, prevent them from making the same mistakes that I did, save them from those miserable feelings of defeat and inadequacy, but alas, sometimes living with grace means taking a step back, being patient, and waiting to help pick up the pieces post-catastrophe.
Much like forgiveness, we sometimes must also be patient for people to come around. Sometimes, they come around right away, and sometimes, they come around five years later. Sometimes, we are witnesses when they do come around, but most of the time, we may never know. Teaching and coaching reminds me of this principle all the time.
Teenagers are self-centered, unreflective, and immature, to say the least. I can’t blame them–this is their nature. I can tell my students and athletes the importance of professionalism, that they need to be constantly monitoring their social media platforms, they need to be conscious about the clothing choices they make, they must try not to burn any bridges. I can tell them personal anecdotes about professionalism, read articles about professionalism, discuss current events about professionalism. And, it may not be until they are 22 years old and are walking into their first job interview that those lessons click. They might remember the importance of answering interview questions with a thesis statement and specific examples, that they shouldn’t wear clanky jewelry, and should practice a firm handshake, but I may never witness the internalization of these lessons.
And, that is fine, because when we live by principles of grace, it shouldn’t be about receiving recognition. We just do these things for other people because we genuinely want to make their lives easier.
Grace is taking the blame even when it’s not yours to have: Everyone we come across in our lives needs something different. Sometimes, people need a kick in the butt to get themselves going. Sometimes, people need a warm, loving hug to remind them they are valued. And sometimes, people need someone else to blame.
When my long-term boyfriend’s mom and I got into a huge confrontation, it was evident that her reactions came from the fear of losing control of her son to me; that I would erase and re-structure her hard work of 22 years of moral programming. When she accused me of being ungrateful, I couldn’t point out all the times I secretly unloaded the dishwasher, cleaned the bathroom, stocked the pantry. When she told me I needed some hormone regulations, I couldn’t point out all the instances of talking about me behind my back and feelings of betrayal that probably lead to my emotional reactions. And, when she told me I was a terrible teacher, a terrible coach, and would be a terrible mother, I had to eat my words and not point out all the things I was doing right. Because, at the time, her feelings of fear and inadequacy needed me to be the one to take the blame. And, while I certainly suffered a considerable amount, was forced to internalize many of my own opinions, take tremendous blows to my ego, and swallow my pride, I had to do it, because in this case, the confrontation was not about me.
Grace is getting up and facing the world, no matter how harsh it may appear: It is true that the world stirs up some really, really horrible things. We see sides of people we hope to never see, we experience emotions of betrayal, lies, and deceit that we hope to never feel, we reveal our own insecurities that are often painful and humiliating. There are horrible, horrible, unexplained and unfair things that happen to people every day: cancer diagnosis, human trafficking, domestic abuse; loneliness, desperation, hopelessness.
And, at the end of the day, we must find a way to keep chuggin’ along.
It is evident that real character comes out in trying situations. After I confront a student for rolling her eyes at me, I must continue to treat her the same at the rest of the students, I must not target her or hold grudges, despite my own hurt feelings of disrespect. When a student confronts me about a low essay grade, I must be tactful, use it as a learning experience, and drop my own defensiveness that might ensue. And, when a student comes back from experiencing some kind of crisis, it is a, ‘let’s pretend that didn’t happen unless you want to talk about it’ so that we can get back on that train of life.
I love William Shakespeare’s quote, “The meaning of life is to discover your gift; the purpose of life is to give your gift away”. Because, while we certainly could wake up every morning, fearful of all the atrocities of the world, living with grace means understanding that the world needs us to fight and use our own individual purpose in order to put as much good back into the world as possible. It is putting aside my own fears of getting in a car accident, or of approaching that confrontational student, or of stepping on a crack and breaking my mom’s back, because someone else might need me. And, the fact that someone else needs me is purpose enough to continue waking up every morning, and battling the harshness of the world.
Living with grace is often not an easy task. Especially in this day and age, we are creatures motivated by instantaneous gratification. When we win a race, we expect an award at the end of the finish line. When we do something nice for someone else, we expect automatic recognition. When we live without casting blame, providing forgiveness, and living selflessly, we expect people to applaud us for our ‘good behaviors’. But, the nature of living with grace means not expecting recognition, not giving forgiveness to be patted on the back, not seeking self-affirmation.
But, the benefits of living with grace finds ways to subtly infiltrate our lives. While we may not receive ’employee of the month’, we do receive random ‘thank you’s’ from those who eventually recognized our influence, and those words of gratitude, of how we changed someone else’s life, are worth way more than a plaque to hang on the wall. While the person we forgive may never acknowledge we forgave them, when we do finally find forgiveness, we do feel a burden lifted off our shoulders. And, while no one may ever give us a gift card to say “thank you for taking the blame when I couldn’t face it myself”, these moments lead us into greater knowledge of the world, and of the self.
But, most importantly, living with grace means that we can live with ourselves. When we lay our head down at the end of our day, the night is silent, the world is still, it is between ourselves and God (or whatever being you believe in) We must answer to this being, “Did I do what you instructed me to do today? Did I uphold a moral character? Did I fulfill my purpose?”
If we answer NO to these questions, we might feel guilty for being self-centered, for oppressing other people’s voices for our own personal gain, for having unrealistic expectations and getting mad when those are not met, for playing favorites due to our own insecurities.
If we can answer YES to these questions, we can rest our heads softly at night, feeling content with ourselves, knowing that we did, indeed, live up to this virtue of grace.