Signal Virtue: The Golden Ball

Virtue: See the value in tradition and custom

Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 1,000 characters) about a time in your life when this positive trait or virtue contributed to or created a situation that had a positive impact on your life.
I remember the day I finished my first book as if it were yesterday. The date was September 11, 2001. It was a Tuesday.

I had gone to my office on campus to write my acknowledgements. My plan was to send my manuscript to my publisher in New York the next day. Rehearsing in prose what it had taken me to finish the book brought me more than once to tears: the years of my son’s life (then age five), the fears of not getting tenure, the support from my teachers, the criticisms of my peers. I had many people to thank, especially my husband and son.

“Their love has sustained me through nights darker than I thought I could bear,” I wrote. “They alone know what it cost to write this book; my debt to them is unpayable, beyond measure.”

I phoned my husband to celebrate. “I finished!” I said. “I’m not sure I should tell you this,” he answered. “But two planes just flew into the Twin Towers in New York.”

The first photo I found showed people covered in dust, running down the streets away from the blast. I got nothing more done on my book that day. How does one write when tens of thousands of people, or so we all feared, had just died?

No planes flew the next day. It was sunny, a beautiful September day, the sky as blue as blue--and quiet. It is never quiet in our neighborhood, but it was quiet that next day. Nobody that I knew did any work that day either. We were still weeks away from the beginning of term, so we spent the day talking about what had happened and what it meant for our lives.

Oddly, given how much there was still to grieve, I felt consoled thinking about the work to which I have dedicated my life. My first thought was not that I should give it all up and go save the world from its madness, but that I already was.

“What we do,” I told one of my academic friends, “is the most important work in the world. Through our scholarship and teaching, we are saving civilization from the barbarians. It matters that we write what we write, for the sake of the world.”
Alternative outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, so that it might have turned out even better.
Even today, I do not defend our culture and civilization with the force that I should. It is why I--and so many others--have found Milo and Professor Peterson so inspiring. They say what needs to be said.

“America is the greatest country in the history of human civilization.” “Western civilization is founded on the idea of the Logos, articulate speech, bringing order out of chaos.” “Our culture is worth saving.”

It’s odd. It seemed worth saving that day, the day after our enemies flew the planes into the Twin Towers and the side of the Pentagon.

But almost immediately people began losing faith. It was somehow our fault--nostra culpa, nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa--that Islamic terrorists destroyed our buildings and thousands of lives.

On campus, it has become at times positively surreal. The University of Chicago fancies itself an Oxford of the Midwest, complete with gargoyles and towers. The student tour guides liken it to Hogwarts.

But as the response to my article about Milo this past February demonstrated, we are not allowed to mention what it was that the medieval scholastics at Oxford--and Paris and Cambridge--studied. Not, that is, if we mean to suggest that whatever it was had some element of truth.

I exaggerate, of course. Or do I? It is hard being a Christian and an academic who studies religion. Scientists do not have to spend their time pretending that they do not believe what they teach, but we historians of religion do if we want to be considered polite.

I do not like being rude. I do not like having to disagree with my colleagues when they say things about being tolerant of other religions regardless of doctrine or practice. When I talk about Christianity and its contribution to human understanding, I try to state only the positives without drawing comparisons, but then, of course, I am accused of not knowing other traditions.

To be fair, I do not know them as well as Christianity. But this does not mean I do not know what they teach.
Guidelines for general improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have improved things even more for yourself or others in that particular situation, please think about this virtue in more general terms. How could you work on capitalizing on this positive trait in general, so that you or others that you care about benefit as much as possible?
I have got to come out of my shell. Okay, perhaps I already have. But I am still nervous about speaking with the full force of the tradition that I would rescue from the belly of the whale.

Of course Christians have done bad things. They are human and fallen, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. But to defend the tradition by which we are able to see ourselves as human and fallen, in need of salvation from our sins--how is that a bad thing?

How is it bad to point out to Christians--and everyone else--that the evil in the world comes from within? Not the patriarchy. Not capitalism. Not the market. But ourselves.

And then to recognize that the reason we can see ourselves this way is itself a great truth of our Western tradition. It is the reason Christ died. Because as hero he emptied himself in order to become one with us--the great blasphemy of Incarnation--in order to draw us with him out of the muck.

I do not like frogs (unlike toads, whom I think are cute), and I have a hard time with Pepe. But I am taken with the way in which Professor Peterson and Orthodox carver Jonathan Pageau talked about the frog and the story of the golden ball.

The frog--who is of course a prince--is a liminal figure like Milo or Professor Peterson (a.k.a. Kermit the Spokesfrog), neither fully of the land nor of the water. The golden ball is the treasure, the most important thing, without which the princess cannot be happy. In the story, the princess drops her ball into the water, that is, into chaos, and it takes the frog to bring it back.

What is the most important thing of Western civilization? Pageau puts it well, citing Professor Peterson: “It is the Logos, it is Truth, it is the Word.”

I have given my life to rescuing the golden ball of medieval exegesis and devotion from the muck, to bringing up from the darkness the older tradition by which medieval Christians read and prayed. Perhaps I am more frog-like than I realized. But of course what I really want is to win the prince.
--From Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring: Virtues program.

Image: “The Frog King” by Paul Friedrich Meyerheim (1889)

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