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:
- Intimate relationships, because without these four virtues, there can be neither intimacy nor any positive relationship.
- Family, because we may need to make more of an effort with parents, siblings, children, and other relatives who, for the most part, we did not specifically choose, who have had the most opportunities to hurt us, and whom we in turn are most likely to take for granted, but who nonetheless have legitimate claims on our affection.
- Friendship, because friendship is not just about being in the same place at the same time with someone, but genuinely caring about them. And because friendships call for the same underlying virtues as intimate and family relationships.
- Caregiving, because being caregiver to someone who is much in need, and especially someone whose memory may be gone or whose personality has changed, can put our forgiveness, compassion, respect, and gratitude to their severest test.
The Essential Virtues relate to other areas besides Love:
- Spirit, because these virtues are encouraged by most religious, spiritual, and ethical belief systems.
- Purpose, because almost all purposeful activities involve other people, if not immediately and directly, then indirectly – and therefore are enhanced by practicing these virtues.
- Avocation, because most avocations are pursued in common with others, and they will be even more satisfying if these four virtues are practiced in the pursuit of one’s pleasure.
- Security, because, in the end, money and houses and other material goods can be used up, lost, or taken away from you, but your final security is with the relationships you have with others – your ability to rely on them in times of need, and their ability to rely on you.
- Health, because (perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not) people who practice these virtues tend to be both mentally and physically healthier.
The Essential Virtues Sub-Topics and Resources
- Forgiveness: Letting go of the negative, to heal your relationships and to heal yourself.
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.
- Free resources:
- “Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness,” on the Mayo Clinic website, offers a nice overview of what forgiveness is about, its benefits for you, how to forgive, and practical obstacles you may have to deal with (rating = A-).
- “Forgiveness,” on the Guide to Psychology and its Practice site, goes into more depth about what constitutes forgiveness and what is needed to make it work (rating = A-). Also see “What Is Forgiveness?,” from the International Forgiveness Institute (rating = A-).
- The “Consider Forgiveness series of videos from the Fetzer Institute is not well organized, as of our last look at it, but you can start at the link provided and find additional videos (rating = A-).
- “The Art and Science of Forgiveness” by Frederic Luskin, on the Cancer Supportive Care Programs website, discusses what forgiveness is, and explains the four stages of forgiveness and the nine steps to getting there (rating = A-).
- “Forgiveness Quotes,” from ThinkExist.com: a quick compendium of what others, both religious and secular, say about forgiveness (rating = A-).
- Other resources:
- Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, by Robert D. Enright, takes into account that forgiveness is not the same for everyone, but still insists that there are four main steps to go through. These are not easy steps to take, but this book helps you do it (rating = A+).
- Forgiveness: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Get on With Your Life, by Sidney B. and Suzanne Simon, offers practical exercises you can use to forgive those who have hurt you in big ways and small (rating = A+).
- How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, by Janis Abrahms Spring, uses case studies to examine four categories of forgiveness: cheap forgiveness, refusing to forgive, acceptance, and genuine forgiveness (rating = A+).
- Why Forgive? by Johann Christoph Arnold. You think what someone else did to you is unforgivable? Read this book first, and see what other people have forgiven, and how it has changed them (rating = A+).
- From Anger to Forgiveness: A Practical Guide to Breaking the Negative Power of Anger and Achieving Reconciliation, by Earnie Larsen, addresses the main obstacle to forgiveness, namely anger, and how to let go of it (rating = A+).
- See also:
- Compassion: Understanding how the world looks to others.
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.
- Free resources:
- “A Guide to Cultivating Compassion in Your Life, With 7 Practices,” is a brief but helpful essay on the importance of compassion, the benefits to you when you practice it, and seven specific ways to become more compassionate (rating = A-).
- “Empathy,” from EQI.org, talks about empathy in a little more scholarly way, highlighting differences between empathy and compassion and sensitivity, and thereby taking us a step deeper (rating = A-).
- “Compassion Quotes” (rating = B+) and “Empathy Quotes” (rating = B), from ThinkExist, might give you some additional insights.
- Other resources:
- The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness, by Marc Ian Barasch, relies on science, spirituality, history and popular culture to urge a simple shift in consciousness that can change just about everything for us (rating = A).
- An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life, by the Dalai Lama and edited by Nicholas Vreeland, addresses the cultivation of compassion in many different circumstances and without regard to one’s religious faith, or absence thereof (rating = A).
- The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life's Challenges, by Paul Gilbert, uses insights from neuropsychology, Jungian psychology, and Buddhist practice to argue that compassion subdues our anger, increases our courage, and heightens our resilience to depression and anxiety, promoting our mental and physical health – and offers exercises you can use to improve your compassion (rating = A).
- Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness, by Marc Ian Barasch, also deals with scientific research and spiritual insights, but involves a personal quest as well, which can make it more interesting reading (rating = A).
- See also:
- Respect: The one sweet that everyone craves.
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.
- Free resources:
- “Respect,” from EQI, offers insights about what respect is, how it is shown, and how it is earned (rating = A-).
- “Respect,” from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, delves into the history of the concept of “respect,” and many of the ideas and theories that surround it (rating = A-).
- Ray Miller addresses respect for others in the workplace, but in ways that are applicable elsewhere in life, in his article Qualities of Leadership Part 2: Genuine Respect for Others and Humility (rating = A-).
- “Respect Quotes,” from ThinkExist, offers additional food for thought (rating = B+).
- Other resources:
- Respect: An Exploration, by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, is one of the few books on this subject written not just for children or teens. Her opening chapter discusses intelligently the key issues, and the other chapters illustrate her concepts with rather detailed real-life stories (rating = A-).
- Other Esteem: Meaningful Life in a Multicultural Society, by Philip O. Hwang, takes more of a cultural, societal look at respect, but brings it home to us individually by contrasting the beauty of “other-esteem” to the often over-rated virtue of “self-esteem” (rating = A-).
- Respect For Others: The Golden Key To Success, by Kay Saunders, approaches respect from a self-help perspective – maybe not as unselfishly as everyone might like, but still with useful insights (rating = A-).
- The Language of Love and Respect: Cracking the Communication Code with Your Mate, by Emerson Eggerichs, talks about the importance of respect in marriage (rating = A).
- See also:
- Gratitude: Important to express, even more important to feel.
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.
- Free resources:
- “What Do Gratitude and Forgiveness Have to Do with Living and Aging Well?,” by Robert L. Weber of the Harvard Medical School, offers useful insights and exercises relating to gratitude (rating = A). See also Weber’s “Searching for the Curative Power of Gratitude and Forgiveness in Groups” (rating = A-).
- “Giving Thanks: The Benefits of Gratitude,” by Susan Krauss Whitbourne on the Psychology Today website, is a fairly short essay on the mental health benefits of gratitude along with some ways in which you can foster gratitude in yourself (rating = A-).
- “The Gratitude Questionnaire,” by Robert A. Emmons of the University of Miami, is a very quick test to measure how your level of gratitude compares to that of various groups of other people (rating = A-).
- “Make a Gratitude Adjustment,” by Lauren Aaronson, offers specific steps you can take to express gratitude and to make a feeling of gratitude part of your everyday life (rating = A-).
- “How to Start a Gratitude Journal,” from WikiHow, takes you step by step through this fairly easy process (rating = A-). “Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal,” from Greater Good, at the University of California / Berkeley, provides additional help (rating = A-).
- Other resources:
Thankfulness and praise for God are common themes in most religious traditions, and you should be able to find theological and inspirational materials on these subjects easily enough, if you belong to a specific faith. For more general (though not necessarily purely secular) approaches to gratitude, try:
- Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert A. Emmons. Emmons is a pioneering researcher in this relatively new field, and he demonstrates how gratitude contributes to emotional equanimity and pleasure, richer personal relationships, and greater health (rating = A+).
- Gratitude: A Way of Life, by Lousie L. Hay, is a collection of essays on gratitude by various authors (rating = A).
- Words of Gratitude for Mind, Body, and Soul, by Robert A. Emmons and Joanna Hill, offers encouragement, guidance, proverbs, and prayers, interspersed with highlights of recent psychological research (rating = A).
- Gratitude: A Daily Journal, by Jack Canfield and D. D. Watkins, is a year-long, two-part journal that provides a simple framework for your personal expressions of gratitude and acknowledgment (rating = A-). Or try the Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude by Sarah Ban Breathnach, which is particularly for women (rating = A-).
- See also:
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