Thursday, June 25, 2009

Summary of interview with Peter Manning

Peter Manning kindly received me in his lovely home and made me coffee before we settled in for our discussion of virtue. He is a concerned man who thought deeply as we talked.

For Peter, virtuous people take responsibility for their actions, reflect on their behaviour, and keep trying to live better lives - going through the cycle of apology and forgiveness whenever necessary. He is concerned that we are moving from self-regulation of behaviour to regulation imposed from without - guidelines from government that try to mandate standards. Not only is this virtually impossible, in his view, but it also actually disempowering as it means people can abdicate responsbility, theoretically doing what is expected of them to a minimum standard. An added concern is that this minimum standard is further limited by the press that consistently sends us messages that people in "modern Britain" are limited, sinful, unvirtuous, and not to be trusted. These two occurances are huge barriers to embedding virtue because they make us wary of forging relationships.

Peter does think consciously about his behaviour and tries to act virtuously, knowing full well, that he does not do so all the time. Behaving virtuously makes him feel good about himself and his fellow man. It also provides some structure and purpose to his life in that it helps him to feel positive and progressive and it engenders trust between people. Virtous behaviour is easier when you have strong relationships.

In times of uncertainty developing relationships is is more important than ever: people are re-evaluating their lives and thinking about new ways of living. We have an opportunity to develop a new common understanding but we need to feel able to take risks and develop new approaches. To that end, he encourages people to develop links in small groups where they can get to know people and with whom they can ideally have daily contact. He also believes that leaders of organisations have important roles to play in embedding virtue, indeed he feels it should be a part of their job. However they need to make themselves accessible, thinking more of what others need than what they need to stay in their positions of power.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:

The whole interview will be available shortly. Please post a comment if you would like to hear it. Thanks.

Summary of interview with Dan Winder, Artistic Director Iris Theatre Company

Dr Dan Winder and I met at his cosy offices in St Paul's Church in Covent Garden. Suitably, it is the actor's church as Dan is a theatre producer, director and an actor, and the artistic director of Iris Theatre. We curled up on the chairs and drank coffee as the cat wandered in and out and talked at length about virtue. Suitably, Dan's entry into a discussion of virtue was Shakespeare's list of qualities required for kingship, taken from Macbeth. These include: justice, verity, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, and fortitude.

Dan believes that virtue is lived out in the small day to day actions one takes. For him, virtue involves emotional and physical closeness and includes personal expressions of affection and intimacy. In short, behaviour based on true empathy with others is virtuous behaviour. For him, being in a supportive environment - being loved and seeing love - makes it easy to be virtuous and to see the impact of virtuous behaviour. Watching people help each other, and helping others, makes Dan feel complete and connected to a greater whole. To that end, virtue meets a deep emotional need to be of service. It also meets a clear rational need which is that virtue eases social interaction, helps makes connections, and thus provides some of what he needs to do his job. It was Dan's upbringing that enabled him to understand the benefits of virtue, and the positive impact it can have on himself and others. Nevertheless, he believes he has made conscious behavioural choices and, to that end, believes the individual plays the key role in embedding virtue in society as a whole. Choosing to surround yourself with supportive people makes it easy to see and participate in virtue, and reap the benefits.

The biggest barrier to embedding virtue in our society is the current pursuit of money and fame for their own sakes. In his line of work (theatre) he sees a lot of this and observes that it inflicts so many people - the 99% who don't win talent programmes - with a sense of failure and shame. He hastens to add that there is nothing wrong with money and fame but that the pursuit of money and fame for their own sakes is clearly damaging in so many ways. Another barrier to embedding virtue is that we just don't talk about it in spite of the fact that virtue leads to a sense of wellbeing and improved psychological health. Many people in power, who could lead the debate and help embed virtue, are closed in on themselves and focused on maintaining their power rather than effecting positive change in the institutions they are leading.

Dan believes if everyone took even five minutes out of their day to sit and think quietly they would develop perspective and harness the energy that is needed to be a little more patient and a little more helpful, enabling you to serve others and, in doing so, serve yourself.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:

The whole interview will be available shortly. Please post a comment if you would like to hear it. Thanks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summary of interview with Martin Vander Weyer, Business Editor Spectator Magazine

Martin and I met at the Spectator offices and had a good poke round the lovely (damp) garden before we admitted defeat and took our places around one of the large tables in one of the meeting rooms. He is a welcoming and kind man who looks a bit like Albert Finney (although he cannot see the resemblance)!

For Martin, virtue is wrapped up in the idea of self restraint and unselfish behaviour. Self restraint is important because, as an ex-banker and now a journalist, he understand there is a lot of scope and opportunity for unrestrained behaviour. He models behaviour along a spectrum from virtuous to neutral to mischievous attention seeking to downright vicious and says of himself that he does not really have it in him to be vicious (something that has caused minor conflicts during his career). Martin seeks to behave with restraint: to have at least a neutral, if not a virtuous impact on others in his day to day life and in his career. He is clearly also an unselfish man in many ways, playing an active role in his local community and taking unpaid positions on various committees and boards. He believes that the highest degree of personal behaviour involves acts of public good that neither seek, nor receive recognition.

There is no shame, he maintains, in keeping virtuous behaviour close to home to benefit yourself as well as the other people who live in your community. Indeed, one of the great pleasures he enjoys as a result of his work in the community is a pleasant community in which to live. him, the emotional benefits of virtuous behaviour include a sense of achievement, of having done his duty, and the result as he walks down the streets of his town and greets the many people he knows includes feelings of warmth and happiness. The rational benefit of being active in the voluntary world is the network he has built up over the years which has definitely helped his career.

Martin thinks about virtue actively. As a journalist, he must consider the impact of his copy and does not want it to have a vicious impact - to that end, he is making choices all the time about the content and tone of what he writes. He believes he learned to consider virtue through his university studies (he read PPE) and also throughout his career where he learned from both positive and negative role models. To that end, he believes senior executives have a critical role to play in embedding virtue in our society because they can create the conditions that make it possible for all employees to engage in virtuous activities outside of the company - either in their local communities or further afield as they choose.

When people ask Martin about they key to a fulfilled life he replies immediately that getting involved is the key: become a trustee, contribute to the local community, donate money, do more for strangers...there is an endless list of what we can do to be more virtuous and the benefits to others and to ourselves, as we have seen above, are manifold.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summary of Interview with Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford and I spent about two hours together drinking tea and discussing virtue, asking many more questions than we answered! She is a warm and thoughtful person with a lively intellectual curiosity which provoked a great deal of honest soul searching on both sides.

Lucy is the first of my interview subjects to have looked up virtue in the dictionary. Her interpretation of the strict definition is that virtue honours other before self. It is more than just doing no harm. It is behaviour that does good - is above and beyond the call of duty. One of the problems in thinking about virtue, however, is that it is somehow so big. If Mother Teresa was virtuous how can the average person be virtuous? Lucy had difficulty thinking about herself and virtue in the same sentence. Was she virtuous? Did she ever behave virtuously? Are her "random acts of kindness" enough? We need to make virtue an accessible word and concept in order to be able to discuss it, let alone embed it into society.

Of course Lucy behaves virtuously, and does so frequently both in her day to day life and in her random acts of kindness which she freely admits she tries to do at least once a day. In her case they involve helping lost tourists find their way. These little acts of kindness make her feel good about herself and she is happy to receive the thanks from strangers in return for a few moments of her time. Being a psychotherapist, Lucy and I discussed whether people could behave virtuously if certain of their basic needs were unmet. Maybe only the lucky ones were capable of virtue? However, we then agreed that behaving virtuously did meet some basic needs - affirmation, self expression, altruism or sense of duty, to name a few. Although people may not have the vocabulary to articulate what virtue means to them or how it impacts them, there is clearly plenty of virtuous behaviour going on "out there". However, there is still a great need to embed it further as it would promote a sense of well being and foster a more harmonious society. The enabler is education. Virtue is something that should be discussed and debated. It should be demystified and raised to everyone's consciousness as something that is simple to do. To that end, we need to start the debate. We hope it starts here.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:

Summary of Interview with Canon Precentor Jeremy Davies

When I knocked on the door of the house attached to St Matthew's Church in Westminster to see Canon Precentor Jeremy Davies, Father Peter opened the door! Upon hearing I had a meeting with Jeremy Davies, Father Peter showed me up to what is clearly his family's lovely sitting room and invited me to wait. The dog was frisking and people were running around - it clearly is Grand Central for the Church by its side.

Jeremy Davies is the Canon Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral and is responsible for the music and worship at the Cathedral. He is a deeply thoughtful man who makes every effort to speak from his heart and is guided and driven by his profound Christian beliefs. As a gay Anglican priest he has struggled with the concepts of virtue and goodness in a Christian context and has come to an understanding that virtue is more than doing good deeds, although eventually it does come to be goodness. Virtue, for him, is the set of actions we take and attitudes we adopt when we strive for perfection, as God asks us to do. As such, it is both a deeply spiritual concept and a set of practical actions that benefit others and serve God. Jeremy has struggled with this for a long time and has come to be comfortable with his understanding of it because he is open to the grace of the virtuous "Other" which holds, supports, loves and guides him for who he is. When behaving in a virtuous way, or seeing virtuous behaviour, Jeremy feels his humanity is being affirmed. He feels alive and loved. He feels joy.

He is quick to add that virtuous behaviour is practised all the time by people with no sense of the "other". You don't need to be a Christian to be a good, virtuous person (in fact it can be quite limiting). This is because a shared understanding of virtuous behaviour has become embedded in our culture and as such is well understood and recognised by most people. If you are in a society/community with a clear structure and shared behavioural norms, there is a general expectation of how to behave - you don't have to think about it because it just is. Currently, however, he senses that there is a yearning "out there." People are becoming intrigued by altruism and they are looking for heroes. However, he sees there is also a great deal of fear and insecurity that lead people to hide their vulnerabilities, stop learning, and ultimately may lead to their corruption and their corrupting of others.

People in institutions (schools, churches, companies, families...) must play a role to guide and support members, setting expecations and role modelling behaviours through the example of their own flawed selves. Virtue is "caught as much as taught".

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:
General information:
Jeremy used our virtue conversation as a basis for one of his sermons:

Friday, June 19, 2009


God and I
have an understanding.

He is comfortable with it
which should be good enough for me.

That's God for you.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Summary of the interview with Father Nadim Nassar

Father Nadim is an Anglican priest, journalist, and director and co-founder of the Awareness Foundation, which "was established to help Christians make sense of their faith in the 21st Century, and to increase awareness of their neighbours' faiths and cultures, so that they can live in a diverse society without fear and without compromising their beliefs" (Awareness Foundation website). He welcomed me warmly into the Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square before accompanying me to the Sloane Club where he was made a member by the generous grace of the club, there being no church hall at Holy Trinity Sloane Square. It was a delightful place to have a cup of coffee and talk at length with Father Nadim about being a Syrian christian, the Awareness Foundation, and of course, virtue.

The definition of virtue, as found in a dictonary, is not adequate for Father Nadim. For him, virtue is found in all positive and fruitful relationships. He chooses his words carefully and is thoughtful about how he expresses this view, taking time to emphasise that of course relationships are difficult, of course people make mistakes and of course we do not always behave virutuously. However, in seeking to build contructive relationships and working to make them so, virtue will be found. It is the tension between the postive and the negative, the cross and the resurrection, that is the essence of virtue for him.

For Father Nadim, virtue is exciting and dynamic. It includes the whole spectrum of human behaviours and because it includes the recovery from sin, it must perforce include sin. Virtue, as defined in this way, makes Father Nadim feel alive and aware of his humanity, his vulnerabilities and his strengths. Indeed, he maintains that in order truly to live a virtuous life - one that seeks and maintains positive, progressive relationships - requires the ability to be vulnerable (and thus open to being loved) as well as to be responsible (and thus able to love). It is only when we are aware of the true nature of our longings that we will seek and maintain virtuous relationships as opposed to trying to shop our way out of them, for example! The catalyst for this change in behaviour, if it is needed, is usually some kind of loss. The cure does require faith in the fact that our longings will be relieved through progressive relationships.

To embed virtue in our society, Father Nadim suggests we should encourage people to ask themselves three questions "Do I love anybody? Whom do I love? How can I express this love for them and how can I expand this love to cover a wider circle of people of people in my life and keep expanding it all the time?" He knows that asking these questions is easy but that answering them and acting on the answers may be extremely difficult for some people.

However, we have to start somewhere and being loved and loving are, for Father Nadim, the obvious places to start.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post:
Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

In the Transition

Speeches by a president garbed in white
flanked by his brothers
to the left and the right.

Posters, pictures, banners, bunting
fire crackers crack and
the government is hunting.

The press is called
and a minister cries,
"you are a peddler of filthy lies.

We won the war
all fair and square
you saw it all, our press were there.

They lost the war
all right and tight
those terrorists ran out of fight.

Now they’re in camps
and you can’t go
until we sort out friend from foe.”

People speak in whispers.

The sound of fighter jets
is so loud I duck and cover
even if I shout
I cannot be heard.
Young men and women point
machine guns indiscriminately
as they know from experience
that anybody can be an assassin.
Walls studded with shards of broken glass
are crowned with barbed wire
and shod with sandbags
to protect buildings we cannot see.

People speak in whispers.

Emotions, like taste buds,
burned at the end of my tongue.
Like nerve endings,
they ran over my skin.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summary of the interview with Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover

Today I interviewed Stephen Venner who is the Bishop of Dover and, thus, the Bishop in Canterbury. He welcomed me most warmly into his office at the Canterbury Cathedral and over cups of coffee we discussed virtue among many other things. He is an extremely honest man - both intellectually and emotionally and I found him brave and generous in what he told me of himself and the opinions he expressed. The Bishop wears many different leadership hats: nationally in the Church of England, in the diocese, in the local community, amongst organizations involved in the care of children, and in the business community where he works with business leaders on a range of commercial and non commercial issues.

It is not surprising that leadership, for the Bishop, is central to the challenge of embedding virtue in our society.

For the Bishop, virtue is "developing the gift of experiencing and bringing into reality all that is good in our hearts" where good means treating others with kindness and generosity: trying to make the lives of others a little easier at whatever cost to oneself. He believes that from birth all humans are pleasers who naturally seek to be in positive relationships with other people and do, therefore, at our core, seek to live in a virtuous way. The Bishop is no different and freely admits that behaving in a virtuous way, whilst it fulfils his genuine desire to please God and the people around him, also meets one of his fundamental emotional needs which is for recognition as a good person. He likes to be held up as a positive example, takes great pleasure in being told his words and/or deeds have a positive, lasting impact, is somewhat fearful of disappointing God and the people around him, and does think from time to time about what may be written about him in an obituary. Clearly, he is a very human Bishop!

Whilst other people may not actively seek to live virtuously (or would not necessarily give it that name) the Bishop returned to the point that we seek, as humans, to forge positive relationships and, to that end, we need to behave in a way that integrates others into our lives in a positive manner for all. It is this that makes us happy. He sees clearly that many people need to change in order to do this and believes that, with a tiny number of exceptions, we are in control of our behaviour and our choices. The trigger for creative introspection and, therefore the opportunity for behavioural change, is life events, most specifically endings (bereavements) of any kind. One potentially positive aspect of our celebrity culture, in his view, is that many people are avid followers of celebrities and have relationships of a sort with them through the pages of the tabloids and the celebrity magazines. Readers identify and empathise with the stars they admire and when something terrible happens (Jade Goody's death came up in our conversation) the fans genuinely grieve and, in doing so, will contemplate their own behaviour and, ideally, choose to make changes for the good. In religious terms, in every generation people look for saints – people whom we admire, would like to be with, would want to be like.

Although the individual makes his/her own choices, the Bishop is clear that institutions must play a larger role in encouraging and embedding virtuous behaviours. An institution is a collection of individuals and, as such, is in a powerful position for good or for ill. Institutions, in his view, have a responsibility to look beyond the bottom line and to help nurture the people who belong to them. Leaders, therefore, must communicate the set of behaviours they would like to see embedded and then lead by example. The benefits will come as people's experiences of the institution change for the better. The leader, however, must make the first step and must continue to stay ahead, enabling people to have something to admire and emulate. The leader must have faith in what seems, at first, so intangible. Like most things, this engagement has a double purpose: not only is it good for the human being involved, it is good for the organization itself.

On a practical level, the Bishop wishes people would be more "glass half full". It is an attitude to life that can be learned with an appropriate personal discipline: actively to seek things, events and people to rejoice in and be thankful for. His experience tells him that if you stick at that it becomes like breathing and then virtuous behaviour, more positive relationships, and deep happiness at the knowledge that you are serving God and that even one life is better because of you, is never far away.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post:
Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:

The whole interview will be available shortly. Please post a comment if you would like to hear it. Thanks.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Summary of the interview with Reverend William Taylor

Today I interviewed Father William who is the Vicar at St John's church in Notting Hill, London. He is a lovely man, warm and thoughtful with a devoted flock and a deeply appreciative staff. In my twenty years of living in London he is the only vicar who has ever invited me to church. And so I went. I was thrilled with the sermon - the essence was the imporance of community to us as individuals. As he says, "...outside our relation, we are not."

This, too, is the heart of that matter, for him, where virtue is concerned.

In summary, Father William believes that virtuous acts are actions we do that benefit other people and that require some cost to ourselves. Paying taxes, in his view, is an act of virtue! Cost to ourselves for what we hope is benefitting society as a whole. What makes it attractive for us to do things for other people at some cost to ourselves, ironically, is what we get in return: a sense of community, without which we will lead lonely, sad lives and risk ending our days in isolation. In addition, being in a community makes it easier for us to do virtuous things for that community - and so the virtuous circle is created.

How do we embed virtue?

It is the responsibility of both individuals and institutions to create and help create connections and, thus, to stimulate the virtuous circle. Individuals must recognise that there may be more people in their lives who will be pleased to hear from them than they may necessarily think. It is up to the individual actively to forge those connections: re-contacting people with whom they may have lost touch and/or more actively connecting with the people in their lives, performing acts of service, however small, with no thought of compensation. Father William challenges all individuals to do what they can for others rather than ask what others can do for them. It is up to the institution to encourage, to facilitate, to provide a connecting point, and to give guidance on the foundations of the relationships as that institution sees them. The institution can have a profound impact on the individual but the individual can never delegate responsibility away from themselves.

I challenged Father William to tell me how he interacts with both his flock and his peers to embed virtue. Responding about his flock, Father William is clear: it is all about encouraging his parishoners to increase the size of their own and the church's community. To that end, St John's is a church in which people are required to achieve things together and are asked to invite their friends and neighbours to church, that being the best way to increase the size of the community. His peers, he maintains, present a more difficult challenge. He believes that the clergy do not always work well together. They are a profession, like any other, and professional rivalry and jealousy often get in the way of developing global solutions.

In summary, it comes down to individuals in their local community. There they have the real sense of caring and being cared for that fosters virtuous behaviour.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries please see an earlier post:
Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links: