The first Army Medal of Honor was awarded in 1863 to Private Jacob Parrott in the Civil War. Typically, when we think of Medal of Honor recipients and the actions they performed, our minds focus on a single place and action in time. The dire straits of the situation and the immense heroic nerve of the recipient make a deep impression upon us. When contemplating the actions and circumstances they endured we often ask, how did they do that? Or we make exclamations like, he’s superhuman, or someone upstairs really likes her! All musings and hyperbole aside, the question I want to pursue is, what makes a person capable of performing such heroic acts, and how can everyday people try to replicate this in their own secular and religious lives?
Valor is a Virtue
The Medal of Honor is awarded when a soldier has “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” As is obvious, one must complete a task of great importance requiring immense selflessness under dire conditions to receive the highest honor in the land. Out of the millions who have bravely served in our armed forces, only 3,500 soldiers have received the honor. At this point, some might say something like, “well there’s been so few recipients because completing an action worthy of such an award is extremely arduous.” This is absolutely true, but there is also more to is than that.
It is true that actions worthy of such distinction are, in themselves, highly difficult to perform. But it is not only the task itself that is difficult but building up the right character to rise up to the challenge. In other words, winning the medal of honor is not only a recognition of accomplishing one task, but many other smaller tasks “behind the scenes,” as it were, that culminated in the big event. It is a recognition of a state of character, of virtue, as much as it is a recognition of performing heroically in battle on a given day. So, what exactly is virtue and how do we build up our character so that we too can face difficult situations with intrepidity?
Doing vs Knowing
Our Lord said, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much” (Luke 16: 10). This accords well with Aristotle’s definition of virtue i.e. a state of character built up by choice and habits over time (Nicomachean Ethics Book 2). Virtuous acts are acts that are properly suited for the particular circumstances. And they are done with the right motivation in accord with reason. For Aristotle, one becomes virtuous by doing virtuous things. Leading a good life is not a matter of knowledge but of action.
Because we are rational beings, knowledge has a place in virtuous acts. However, mere possession of knowledge does not equate to possessing virtue. As Jesus says with the parable of two sons (Mat 21: 28-32) it is the son who actually works in the field and not the son who merely says he’ll work in the field who does his father’s will. So, too, a medal of honor winners (and all virtuous people for that matter) don’t merely know what is courageous, they do what is courageous.
Time and Habit
Now, some might say that the possession of virtue is a pre-requisite for carrying our virtuous activities. You must first be courageous and then you can do courageous things. I can see two possible replies to this, one from Our Lord and one from Aristotle. Aristotle contends in the Nicomachean Ethics that mere knowledge is enough in some disciplines but when we talk about virtue. For example, once a person knows how to form a sentence in Spanish, she can immediately go on to create a Spanish sentence. However, virtues are not like this. Virtues are states of character, they are dispositions to act in certain circumstances in life. These dispositions are built up over time and by habituation. Each choice we make builds up our dispositions which will inform our character and our decisions in the future.
This is why it is important to be righteous in small things, as Our Lord said. Most decisions we face in life are small. Few people will ever face a choice so full of consequence that their action should merit the distinction of receiving the Medal of Honor. That does not diminish, however, the importance of all these little moments in life. The furnace of our decisions makes the steel of our character. Day by day the circumstances of life beckon us to choose how to shape our character. Our choices dictate the quality of the steel out of which intrepidity is made. If we choose well, then as Aristotle says, we will never become miserable no matter how hopeless things may be because will never choose what is wrong and mean. And as Our Lord says, if we endure till the end, we shall be saved (Matthew 24: 13).
This is how those brave men and women who have received our Nation’s highest honor were able to do what they did. They brought the same resolve and commitment and sound decision making to every little situation that presented itself to them. They saw clearly and acted decisively because they had gotten many small decisions right throughout their lives. Though most of us will never win the Congressional Medal of Honor, we can apply these same lessons to win honor in the eyes of God.
Lent is a perfect time to assess the quality of our steel and make improvements. We will need knowledge, to be sure. We will need to know our faults, our habits and how we can correct them. But more than this, we will need to make better choices. Now is the time to use penance, prayer, and reflection to change our ways and redouble our efforts. And we can rely on the Lord for help and strength to change, especially if our erroneous ways are deeply ingrained in us. We must never tire of doing the small things well or lose heart when misfortune befalls us. In this way we can prepare ourselves for those few but very pregnant moments in life and say with the Psalmist upon their arrival, my heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready (Psalm 57:7).