The Danger of Perceived Virtue

Sept. 11th, 2017

I am a huge nerd. There are so many things in my life that I nerd out about. A recent nerdy thing I’ve been engaged in is learning to run Dungeons & Dragons, which is called being a dungeon master or DM. It’s been a great deal of fun and I have learned a lot. Particularly from Matt Colville who runs a YouTube channel devoted to convincing D&D players to become DMs.

In one video, he said “Some people believe it is ‘virtuous’ to write your own adventures rather than use ones others have already written. This is not true. It doesn’t matter where you get your content, as long as everyone’s having fun.” The word virtuous stuck with me. It’s a fantastic word that carries almost as much baggage with it as the word “should”. And in fact, the two are very alike when related to mental health.

Every day I see articles, social media posts, and other sources proclaiming that something is fantastic for us. Yoga, wine, not drinking wine, chocolate, abstaining from animal products, early rising, green smoothies. The aim, in most cases, is to help people and make their lives better. And in fact, many of these things do that. There is a catch, however.

Because we are bombarded by advice and suggestions of how beneficial these things are, we see them in a certain light. That, I have now come to believe, is the light of virtue. We believe that if only we could rise early, write 500 words in our gratitude journals, practice yoga perfectly, drink a green smoothie, and go for a walk in nature, that we would be virtuous.

What happens when we cannot do these things? Or if doing these things would actually cause us far more harm than good? We assume this means we are lacking. Especially waking up early. Common knowledge seems to think that anyone who arises after a certain, and ill defined, time is unvirtuous.

I see this causing real harm every day. My clients often know what helps them, but feel a reluctance to engage with it, if it isn’t in accordance with what is generally agreed to be “best”. We should be able to just work away at anything, at home, without accountability, from 7AM, unmedicated, and without any other support.

We, and I most definitely am including myself in this false belief of virtue, need to give ourselves permission to work outside the mold. We need to recognize that what really works for us may bear no resemblance whatsoever to advice in lifestyle magazines and that that is perfectly ok.

What virtuous activity have you rejected, for your mental health?