Your connections to others you care about

The Essential Virtues

The foundation of all good relationships

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Love, it is said, is the greatest of the virtues. But there are other virtues that make love possible and keep it going. There are many of them, in fact, but on this page we focus on what are arguably the four most fundamental and effective ones: forgiveness, compassion (or empathy), respect, and gratitude.

These four virtues, like love itself, not only connect us with others but also can be healing and strengthening for ourselves. When we forgive others, and let go of anger, we apply balm to our own souls. When we feel empathy and act on our compassion, we expand our own vision of life, and welcome others in. When we feel and express respect for others, we feel less threatened ourselves, and become free to become our very best selves. When we offer gratitude to others, and even when we just feel it within, we can become infused with otherwise inexplicable joy.

Fostering these virtues in ourselves, and practicing them with others, may be the single most important way to assure our own happiness in life, as well as to strengthen our relationships with others.

If you prefer to listen and watch, rather than read, go to YouTube and search on any of these topics for a variety of informative and inspiring videos. (Tip: if you are interested in "respect" search under "respect for others" to avoid getting lots of hits for the Aretha Franklin song)

The Essential Virtues relate to other areas of Love:

The Essential Virtues relate to other areas besides Love:

The Essential Virtues Sub-Topics and Resources

Forgiveness is an issue only when someone has done wrong to someone else, but of course, this is hardly an unusual situation. By the time we reach our forties or fifties, any number of people have probably hurt us unnecessarily – maybe a parent, maybe a sibling, maybe a close friend, a co-worker, even a total stranger. Resentment, anger, thoughts of revenge, sometimes a deep hatred, can result. But these dark emotions rarely have much effect on their intended targets, while they can eat us alive, if we harbor them. They upset our mental and emotional equilibrium, and they damage our physical health.

Forgiveness is the antidote, but it is not a simple medicine. It has to be taken – or rather, given – at the right time, in the right way, and in the right amount. And despite its healing power, it can seem like a bitter pill, especially to those who don’t have much experience with it.

For those haunted by devils of the past (or present), this is a subject that it is essential to explore.

Compassion – by which we mean not just feeling sorry for people in trouble, but real sympathy and empathy, seeing things the way they look to the other person, when life is good as well as when it isn’t – is perhaps the most basic virtue.

To some extent, the capacity for this kind of compassion is a gift: some people have a natural instinct for it, and some people find other people to be completely unreadable, even when signals are pouring out of them. Those who do have this gift need to use it consistently, at least with those they want to have good relationships with, and not to just turn it off when they are annoyed, or when their buttons get pushed. And those who lack this gift can learn to be more imaginative, to at least ask, “How would I feel if I were in the other person’s situation?” – which is far from an infallible method, but is better than not trying at all.

We also show compassion when we let others show compassion to us. Accepting help graciously means giving others an opportunity to be virtuous, and ourselves the opportunity to express gratitude, rather than pride. If it is more blessed to give than to receive, then by allowing others to show compassion, we permit them to take the more blessed role -- so we become givers ourselves, as well as recipients, of a gift.

It seems almost a law of nature that personality problems are caused by personal insecurity – not insecurity about our life or freedom or finances, but simply about how others regard us. Psychologists say we all have our defense mechanisms, our strategies for dealing with stress, including the stress that comes from the sense that others feel, or might feel, that we aren’t good enough. Some of us withdraw, some of us go on the attack, some of us act over-confident, some of us pout, some of us play the clown, some of us act cynical and sarcastic, some of us try too hard or give in too much, some of us make fun of others. We do these things, when all we really want is to be accepted for who we are, and be treated with a modicum of respect.

When we are respected, even in this modest sense, we feel secure. We are not going to be harassed, made fun of, looked down upon, unfairly criticized, despised, considered unworthy. We can be our true selves, and feel safe doing so. From most people we know, excluding those dearest to us from whom we might expect more, simple respect is all we really need.

And in turn that’s all that most other people need from us. Getting it, and giving it, is simple in theory, and maybe not even so hard in practice, if we put just a little effort into it.

Just as it is important to use forgiveness to overcome negative feelings toward others, where we can, it is enriching both for others and for ourselves when we practice the positive virtue of gratitude.

Gratitude comes most naturally when someone else does something nice, especially something unexpectedly nice, for us. But seen as a virtue, gratitude goes beyond that. We can be grateful simply that the other person exists, that that person is who she or he is, and that we have the opportunity to include that person in our lives. Expressing such feelings in words once in a while is appropriate, but expressing them in our actions and our attitudes toward that person matters just as much, and probably more. Gratitude, in turn, will make it easier to feel compassion and respect, and will make it easy to forgive when, as inevitably happens at times, even those closest to us let us down.

What’s more, the feeling of gratitude is just as beneficial to us as it is to those to whom we express it. Studies show that people who harbor feelings of gratitude toward others, and even a sense of abstract gratitude for life itself, are happier and healthier. The simple determination to focus on what we have, rather than what we lack, can be the difference between growing older with grace and turning into an old crank.