Friday Musings: Moral Skill Set

Friday Musings: Moral Skill Set

In last week’s post, I mentioned that I’d discovered a new podcast called On Being with Krista Tippett. I confess that up until about two months ago, I was not much of a podcast listener. I had a few favorites, mostly astrological, but I hadn’t really branched out all that much beyond those. I think people who regularly listen to podcasts will say, however, that once you discover some good ones that you like, they will often lead you to more that are similar in style and content. And so that has happened to me. I came across House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy through On Being and have quickly become a huge fan. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you that I did not immediately know who he was. For those of you who are in that same boat with me, Vivek Murthy is the 21st Surgeon General of the United States. In a groundbreaking move on May 1st, he issued an advisory to call our attention to the mental and physical effects of loneliness, which he sees to be an epidemic in our country. The powerful force of loneliness is a topic that I’ve written about quite often on this blog and as recently as last week, in fact. As it turns out, over 50% of U.S. citizens have reported feeling isolated even before the Covid-19 pandemic, with those feelings intensifying in its aftermath. As you would expect, House Calls covers topics related to the ways in which we can manage these kinds of emotions and move in a far more compassionate and empathetic direction overall.

Back in March, Dr. Murthy interviewed New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks in an episode called What is a Meaningful Life? Brooks has been with the Times since 2003 and is also a commentator on PBS NewsHour, NPR’s All Things Considered and NBC’s Meet the Press. In this particular conversation, Brooks ponders the reasons why we are so sad and so angry as a society, and why these emotions have begun manifesting at such an early age. His answer is that “there is something deeply relational going wrong in American society” that is related to what he calls “a decline in moral formation,” a pompous term, in his own words, that is comprised of three things: “The first is helping us to restrain our natural selfishness. The second is helping us to find a purpose in our life so we know what our life is for. And the third is giving us practical instructions on how to be a considerate human being in the normal activities of human life.” For many years American society saw the education of values as a paramount part of the learning process, both at home and at school. In a nutshell, we were all thought to be fundamentally flawed at birth and therefore needed to be taught a certain moral skill set in order become good and compassionate human beings. Eventually, that way of thinking changed, and we began to reject the idea of having to teach such lessons, embracing instead the belief that because children are fundamentally good, they will innately know how to be both kind and decent, needing no additional moral formation. Individuality, personal accomplishments, and a path towards a successful future became the goals, although education has begun to incorporate social and emotional learning into curriculums everywhere to swing the pendulum back towards compassion and empathy.

After listening to the podcast episode, I wondered what types of behaviors would then belong in this moral toolbox that we hope to pass on to our children. What skills must we have in order to be considered kind and compassionate human beings? Let’s begin with the art of saying hello with genuine sincerity and interest, and with the kind of direct eye contact that says we recognize the importance of the moment. This skill absolutely needs to be taught to our children through our words and by example, and we need to hold both ourselves and them accountable each and every time we miss the opportunity to express interest in another human being. We also have to learn how to share another person’s burden, how to sit with them in their suffering despite how difficult that might be for us, and how to check in and offer real support. We need to remember the importance of saying “I’m sorry” when we know someone has lost a loved one. We need to practice the art of asking for forgiveness until we get it right, while being equally gracious in accepting an apology from another person. We need to prioritize making every person feel understood, valued, and included, using our own inner light to illuminate theirs. We need to honor one another’s authenticity and accept without judgement. Above all else, we need to remember how significant all the little things can be like the power of a smile at just the right moment, the outstretched hand to help a stranger, the hug that neither person wants to end, and the question, “How are you today?” asked with our full intention to wait for the answer. Accomplishments are important, as is our salary, our title, and the work we do in the world. We cannot live without some measure of financial success that allows us to pay our bills and save for our future. But there is a delicate balance to be found between a having a successful life and finding a meaningful one. Mastering this skill may be the most important one to strive for.

For today’s cocktail, I decided to do a riff on a classic cocktail called The Turnpike which uses rye as the base spirit and Laird’s Applejack as a secondary. I chose to use Standard Wormwood Rye, distilled in Brooklyn, because I felt as though the symbolism of the wormwood would be appropriate. There is a certain level of bitterness that has taken hold of us as a society, and we sometimes use it to justify actions that place our own priorities and needs before those of others. I also thought the Applejack was equally appropriate since the apple remains representative of our biblical fall from grace. Lemon is the citrus, and the original drink uses regular simple syrup, which I changed to sage simple because this post is very much related to teaching and lessons. Sage represents wisdom gained, and it is also one of the herbs that is considered related to the planet Saturn, the astrological taskmaster and teacher. I used homemade angelica bitters for the same reason; although they are definitely a bittering agent, they also provide a distinct lift to cocktails. I loved the idea of the drink finishing with hope, just as I think the subject of this post can. Cheers everyone. Happy Friday! What skills do you think belong in the toolbox?

Moral Skill Set

1.25 oz Standard Wormwood Rye whiskey
.75 oz Laird’s Applejack
.75 oz lemon juice
.75 oz sage simple
2 dashes Angelica bitters

Long shake over ice.
Double strain into a coupe or other “up” style glass.
Garnish with a lemon wheel.


Listen to a recording of today’s post below.


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