VIRTUE: The Better Angels Of Our Nature, by John Bradshaw

The Better Angels Of Our Nature John Bradshaw

From Reclaiming Virtue

The mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human. (George Eliot)

Magnificent moral moments often move us to tears.  They can make chills run down our spine; sometimes they inspire us to change.  Why is this?  These stories seem to touch something deep within us, a part of us that is naturally attracted to what is good and virtuous.

The psychologist Erik Erikson writes: Men have always shown a dim knowledge of their better potentialities by paying homage to those purest leaders who taught the simplest and most inclusive rules for an undivided mankind.

Abraham Lincoln evoked the source of this dim knowledge with his phrase, “the better angels of our nature.”

In this dim knowledge of our better potentialities a unique kind of moral intelligence that is part of human nature?  If it is part of our nature, why is it that so few people develop it fully?  And if the rules taught by our purest leaders are so simple, why have I found it so hard to live virtuously?  These questions are among the overarching concerns that have prompted me to write this book.  I have other concerns, some of which are more personal.

My Struggles With Rightdoing and Wrongdoing

For the first thirteen years of my life, I was a model child.  I was a straight-A student, the president of my class every year in elementary school.  I was my mother’s favorite, always willing to help around the house, and the boy who cut the neighbors’ laws and helped them with their groceries.  I was the nuns’ favorite, too, president of the Sodality of Our Lady, the society in Catholic schools that honors the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I was considered a perfect little Roman Catholic boy and the pride of my family.

But during early puberty all this good-boy behavior developed a dark side.  My mother could no longer tolerate my father’s drinking and womanizing and divorced him.  I was shattered, and gravitated to other guys whose fathers were alcoholic and whose parents were divorced.  We began to drink and frequent brothels.  It was a Jekyll and Hyde existence: I was president of the senior class and second academically during my first two years of college, but I ran with a crowd that drank almost every day.  I helped my mother financially but stole money from the place where I worked.  By the age of twenty, I was a full-blown alcoholic and had a sordid history of sexual experience with prostitutes.

As the pain of drinking and out-of-control sexuality intensified, I hit what is called in addiction programs an “early bottom.”  I decided to follow the advice of the elementary school nuns and several priests, who had suggested that I had a “calling” to serve God.  I entered the seminary at age twenty-one and became an exemplary but rigid novice, praying on my knees for three or four hours at a time, and fasting to a point where my physical health was threatened.  After four years of this moral and spiritual rigidity, I began to loosen up.  I secretly started drinking and stealing drugs from the seminary pharmacy.  Over the next five years, this behavior escalated, becoming so bad that I was sent to two psychiatrists, both of whom advised me to give up the pursuit of the priesthood.  I had struggled with the demands of living a life of poverty, celibacy, and obedience for nine and a half years, but I was afraid to leave.  It was only during my graduate work, after studying the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, that I was inspired to take the risk of leaving my religious order.  What I learned from Aristotle’s work is one of the anchors of this book.

When I left the seminary I was thirty years old and truly a “lost soul.”  I had advanced degrees in theology, philosophy, and psychology, but such degrees were hard to market.  I finally got a job teaching at a Catholic high school but was soon fired for missing work because of my drinking.  I was fired from my next two jobs as well.  These firings helped me to hit my real bottom, and after an especially bad binge in 1965, I committed myself voluntarily to Austin State Hospital.  My commitment required that I be there for only a week, but I was put in Ward 8, which housed people with a variety of psychiatric disorders, including those with severe mental illness.  Six of us slept in a room that was about nineteen by twenty-four feet.  Alcoholics were despised by this population – we were not considered to be sick enough.  I had to be constantly alert to guard against being killed.  I left when my seven days were up and entered a twelve-step alcohol recovery program, marrying two years after I sobered up.  I pursued sobriety with my usual zealous and polarized passion.  I was exemplary, but I could never find moderation.  I was either all good or all bad.  I worked the alcohol recovery program rigidly for the first nine years and then began having affairs.  The first six years of my marriage were wonderful, but I was a covert incest survivor and had a whore/Madonna mentality (which meant you don’t have sex with someone you love), and after the first four years of marriage, I became sexually anorexic.  I loved my wife, but when it came to genital sex, my body froze.  None of this is an excuse for my sexual compulsivity  – but coupled with my nine and a half years of abstinence in the seminary was an elaborate denial system that allowed me to justify my sexual behavior.  My sexual acting out intensified over a period of six years, and I slowly realized that I had become addicted in a new way.

A Profound Loneliness

Despite my sexual acting out, I had achieved a modicum of external success.  I was making a six-figure income, had a counseling practice with a yearlong waiting list, and was a much sought-after speaker and workshop leader.  I did part-time leadership training and stress management for an oil and chemical company, and did one-day workshops for several Fortune 500 companies.  Life should have been good – but addiction is a profoundly lonely activity.  I was living a lie.  My brain engaged in doublethink, one part ravaged with shame and another part basking in the good work of healing I was providing for people.  I could heal others but not myself.

I found the beginning of sexual sobriety on August 13, 1981.  I found it in a way that still baffles and humbles me today.

However, even in my recovery I remained cut off and felt disconnected from everyone and everything.  There was an emptiness in me – a black hole – that held dominion over my life.  While I was living according to all the moral laws I knew, I still felt like I was on the outside of life looking in.

I felt no real connection to the schools I had gone to.  Even though I had been senior class president in high school, I had little interest in my class and let others organize our reunions.  People I had been friends with in the past slipped out of my life.  Sometimes I could hardly remember their names.  I lectured at Palmer Episcopal Church in adult theology for twenty years, but after I left Palmer to pursue the challenges created by my PBS television series, Bradshaw on the Family, I had little contact with the church until recently.

I Was Not Really Alone

From the time I sobered up until I stopped my private counseling practice in 1988, nearly four thousand people sought my help with the problems in their lives.  Listening to their stories, along with my conversations with friends, made it abundantly clear that I was not alone in my moral confusion.  Either people rigidly followed the Bible or held the doctrines of their family religious preference or they floundered.  Even those who acted as if they knew the truth, about moral goodness were struggling with their marriages, their children, being honest about their taxes, and the specific demands of civic duty; they were horrified by the greed and shamelessness that surround them, but did nothing about it.

I heard people say things like: Our child is on drugs and we don’t know what to do;  My husband is never home, and when he is at home, he won’t talk about anything;  Evil people seem to be making out better than good people;  I can’t find a church I feel comfortable in;  I’m struggling with the idea of a loving God;  I don’t have any real friends;  I feel lonely and disconnected;  I  with I had the absolute faith I had as a child; or I’ve accepted Jesus as my personal savior but I can’t give up the affair I’m in.  Other born-agains were cheating on their taxes or engaged in unethical business deals.  The people I knew, counseled, and interacted with were all struggling with the complexity and ambiguity of moral choices.

What Had Gone Wrong?

My own moral and religious education was rigorous.  I remember memorizing the Ten Commandments and the Catholic catechism, and how I was called upon to recite these while a nun held a ruler poised to hit my open palms if I faltered.  Once these rules were memorized, it was my duty to obey them without thought or question.  In fact, questioning was considered a mark of disobedience and a lack of faith.  Good moral behavior was simply a matter of obeying the rules with little or no understanding of many of them.  The goal of my childhood moral teaching was to make me virtuous.  But this way of teaching moral values, based as it was on blind obedience, did not make me virtuous.  Nor did it make my friends or the people I counseled (religious or otherwise) virtuous.

What confused me was that the choices that challenged me as a moral person were often not clear and certain.  If moral law were a system of absolute rules, there would be no need to deliberate or anguish over what choice was the best for me to make; there would be no need for freedom of choice.  But living a good life involved complexity, ambiguity, and risk, and I often found myself puzzled.

Questions Raised by the Magnificent Moral Moments

As the novelist George Eliot says in the quotation above, The mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims.  I can illustrate this mysterious complexity by looking again at the magnificent moral moments with which I started this book.  Each one makes a statement about goodness and virtue, but at the same time, each one raises new questions that must be dealt with.


William Feehan’s description of the “fire department culture” underscores the fact that many people have a desire for goodness that transcends material rewards.  They have a caring will and an appetite for service; their priority is to help their fellow human beings.  But can we say that every person who becomes a firefighter has this caring will?  I know some who do not seem to be people of goodwill.  The real question is, how is this desire and appetite for goodness created?  How do we educate people in a way that will nurture and develop a passionate desire for goodness?


Ruby Bridges’ strength seems to have come from her religious beliefs.  But could those religious beliefs alone sustain this six-year-old girl?  One answer is that Ruby was securely attached to her mother, who had a deeply committed religious faith, and both Ruby and her mother were part of a cohesive church community headed by a respected pastor.  It was the mutuality of her secure bonding to her mother and her minister that gave Ruby the inner courage and strength to do what she did.  Religious faith that begins in secure attachment to beloved source figures is unquestionably a source of moral strength.

But what if those source figures believe in a perfectionist and cruelly punishing God, as Susan Krabaher’s mother did, using that belief to abuse Susan?  What if people’s religious bonding leads them to believe in a holy war that offers them a sure place in Heaven if they fly their planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, as the terrorist pilots of September 11, 2001, believed?  Can that form of religious bonding be a source of moral goodness?  Do we have any objective way to judge what is good or bad religion?  Why do so many religions come to believe that their way is the only righteous way?


Maria Montessori brought forth the innate intelligence and goodness in the children she taught by creating a special kind of environment.  But can environment alone be the source of virtue?  The Nazis tried to shape environments that would create a master race – and spawned untold horror and evil.  My religious community was dedicated to spiritual development, but it could not contain the spiritual bankruptcy of my addiction.  How can we find ways to create the environments that fulfill the promise of Montessori’s work?


Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay his poll tax, modeled a conscience that superseded blind obedience to civil law.  Hugh Thompson and his comrades also went beyond official duty and military law by intervening at My Lai.

But couldn’t we argue that the terrorist pilots of 9/11 were also following their consciences?  That they saw America as so sinful, materialistic, and degraded that their consciences demanded taking action against such evil?  Thoreau’s heirs might say that nonviolence is the solution, but Thompson protected the Vietnamese civilians by directing his crew to shoot any Americans who interfered.  Which model should we follow, and when?


Abraham Lincoln had an ability (now described as emotional intelligence) to inspire and move others to action in order to achieve justice.  I could have quoted any one of his famous speeches that played a part in changing the moral history of our country.  But the emotional intelligence that Lincoln possessed was also possessed by Hitler, Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and many others who used it to inspire evildoing, cruelty, and murder.  What makes emotional intelligence a source of goodness rather than a source of evil?


In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is an example of the virtue of hope.  Dufresne’s hope allowed him to endure and triumph over unbelievable odds in order to find his personal redemption.  Dufresne was wrongly convicted, but couldn’t a guilty prisoner also have an enduring and passionate hope of breaking out of jail?  Couldn’t hope give him the strength to dig a tunnel to freedom?  How do we evaluate what constitutes the virtue of hope?


Morrie Schwartz gained great wisdom from his life experiences.  But not everyone uses their experience as a source of wisdom.  I recently visited an old, old friend whom I found soured and bitter about his life.  He complained about the children he’d raised, suggesting that he would be so much better off financially if he had never had them.  He sat across from me drinking one glass of wine after another, angry, and resentful.  So experience alone is not a reliable moral teacher.  What is it that makes one person’s experience a source of wisdom and another’s a source of despair?


Johnny Pagnini showed incredible courage in saving a young woman from being raped and probably murdered by two gang members who had kidnapped her.  When I asked him how he decided to do what he did, he said that he just did it – he didn’t even have to think about it.  But Johnny had a family of his own who would have suffered great deprivation had he been killed or injured in a ninety-mile-an-hour auto chase.  Johnny also risked the lives of other drivers on the freeway.  For most people, the same behavior would have been frivolous and reckless.  How can an act of courage for one person be a ruthless, even vicious behavior for another?


Susan Krabacher’s choice to devote her life to the poor children in Haiti is a remarkable example of how experiencing evil can motivate us to do good.  But when we consider the amount of evil in the world, why aren’t more people moved to combat it?  We may be sickened by evil, yet still remain apathetic in the face of it.  What does it take to move people to virtuous action?  And why are people most moved to take action only when there’s a terrible crisis?  How do we become committed to the long, slow fight to change things for the better?

Back To My Roots

In my attempt to answer these many questions, I went back to my early days in the seminary and reviewed my former studies of the Greek ethical tradition that culminated in the work of Aristotle.  I also reconnected with the medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas.  These men had helped me change the direction of my life and shaped my early adult understanding of the mysteries of good and evil, and how the life of virtue can be achieved.

Now, forty-five years later, I realized that when I first studied these great thinkers, I was too immature and lacking in life experience to grasp the depth and grandeur of their thought, even though they did mark a profound turning point in my life.  As I reread them, I was amazed at the coherence of their ethical thinking and how it offered real answers to the complex moral questions of today.  Aristotle wrote four hundred years before Christ, yet his work anticipates the most recent advances in our understanding of the plasticity of the brain and the part played by intuition and emotion in making moral choices.

It was Aristotle’s belief that virtue and human happiness are synonymous.  He asserted that we cannot be fully human without developing the inner strengths he called “virtues.”  Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas also believed that at the pinnacle of moral life are the virtues of love and justice, which transcend mere adherence to rules and laws.  But these virtues, they said, can be fully developed only when we also develop the skill to make choices based on “lucid and reasonable desire.”  They believed that this skill was itself a virtue, and they called it prudence or moral wisdom. They saw it as a unique practical intelligence that allows us to discover the best, most caring alternative amid the countless circumstances that are present in every real moral choice.

Beyond the Ancient Thinkers

As stunning and brilliant as their thinking was, Aristotle and Aquinas did not have the benefit of the important new discoveries about human nature that have emerged one after the other in the last 150 years.  They did not have the insights we have gained from developmental psychology, such as the critical importance of secure attachment in infancy and how the feeling of shame (which is the foundation for the development of guilt, which governs a good conscience) can be transformed into a toxic shame-based identity that destroys our sense of self and contaminates our moral choices.  They did not have the benefit of psychotherapy, which has shown us how childhood neglect and abuse create a wounded “inner child” that can wreak havoc in our intimate relationships.  They were ignorant of the neo-Freudian understanding of a strong ego or solid sense of self-esteem, which is a foundation for developing good character.  They were not privy to the astounding discoveries in modern neuroscience that have given us new insights about the plasticity of our brains and our potential for excellence.  All of these modern discoveries have expanded and deepened their notion of moral intelligence.

An Ethics For Our Time

I began working on this book a year before the terrorists’ attacks on September 11, 2001.  That atrocity was committed by men acting in obedience to a fanatical and polarized religious morality.  This is the kind of morality that also produced the Nazi Holocaust, which German theologian Dorothee Sölle described as the product of a “culture of obedience.”  Those attacks made my decision to write this book far more urgent than I could have imagined.

Obedience and respect for authority are a necessary part of the process of growing up morally, but if we stop there, we become arrested at a developmental stage that predisposes us toward the rigid polarization of rightdoing (good) and wrongdoing (evil).

I believe that our current state of moral uncertainty and confusion offers us an unprecedented opportunity to embrace our ethical responsibility as adults.  We can develop the inner strengths that will guide us morally no matter how much the world changes around us and no matter what new circumstances we encounter.  The ancient philosophers and theologians call these inner strengths virtues.  As one of the great founding fathers of our country, James Madison, told us: Is there no virtue among us?  If there be not no form of government can render us secure.  To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty and happiness without any form of virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.

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