Signal Virtue: Beauty and the Beast
Virtue: Feel enough shame if I do something stupid so I won’t do it again
Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 1,000 characters) about a time in your life when this positive trait or virtue contributed to or created a situation that had a positive impact on your life.
Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paulo and Francesca da Rimini (1867)
I cheated on my first husband. (Ha! That got your attention.)Alternative outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, so that it might have turned out even better.
It was twenty-six years ago. I was young, as was my lover. We got married three years later, after waiting out the period during which according to the law in the U.K. I could ask for a divorce. We are still married now. But I did it. We did it. He was already married, too, but his wife sued for divorce immediately.
The whole town knew about it, it was hardly a secret. This was academia, after all. They were in the same department. After I left my first husband for my lover, I didn't talk to anyone else except on the telephone for the better part of a year. It did wonders for getting my dissertation written. Not so much for my social life.
And then we moved to Chicago. One of my ex-husband’s fellow graduate students was a member of my new department, and a year or so later we hired another colleague who knew him, too. But otherwise, it was my (and my new husband’s) secret.
People would ask us, “How did you meet?” And we would fudge.
“Oh,” I would say. “I was doing research for my Ph.D., and he was teaching in Cardiff.” At which the next question should have been: “Why were you in Cardiff?” But the question never came.
Paolo and Francesca had nothing on us when we fell in love. All the poetry came true.
All. Of. It.
How many times have I wanted to talk about how romantic it was when we met...and knew I couldn't because it would be a lie? It was romantic, in exactly the steamy way adultery always is. You feel swept away, caught up in the story, overwhelmed with passion. Don't get me wrong: it was fun.
But it was also stupid. So stupid that I determined never to do it again. I remember well the last words my ex-husband said to me. We had met at a pub about a month or so before I and my new husband were going to be moving to Chicago.
“He'll leave you in five years,” my ex said.
I have spent the past twenty-three years trying to make sure that never happens. That I never do it again.
I might have told the truth sooner. More publicly. Not let the lie fester.Guidelines for general improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have improved things even more for yourself or others in that particular situation, please think about this virtue in more general terms. How could you work on capitalizing on this positive trait in general, so that you or others that you care about benefit as much as possible?
More words of advice, this time from my now father-in-law, who like Professor Peterson is a psychologist. What he told us: “People will respond to the way you behave.” By which I think he meant: they will be looking for cues from you about what the adultery meant.
I’ve told you already about my family’s history with divorce. It’s complicated, but hardly novel. Perhaps a little bit: my parents divorced in the seventies, just after the divorce laws changed. It was somewhat unusual back in the day to be from a broken home.
It is one of the rationalizations I gave myself for leaving my first husband: we had no children, it was better to get out before we did; we probably should not have gotten married in the first place--that is a whole other story!--but at least there were no children involved.
The truth. What is the truth here? I have in my Moleskin notebook a long list of stories I will never tell you about my romantic and sexual failures. I racked up my fair share in college, not to mention graduate school. What I am trying to figure out is whether there is a pattern.
Professor Peterson has mentioned the study that the Google guys (I think it was Google guys) did about women’s pornographic fantasies. How they fall into the archetypal pattern of Beauty and the Beast. Beauty is, well, Beauty. The Beast takes five forms: Vampire, Werewolf, Pirate, Billionaire, Surgeon. Beauty’s role is to tame the Beast. Teach him chivalry, as it were.
You gotta laugh. My father, the adulterous alcoholic, was a trauma surgeon. Think Hawkeye from M*A*S*H. Except Dad was in the Air Force and stationed in Thailand. Talk about a Beast. My mother was a total Beauty (the men still think she is!), who tamed my father and turned him into a surgeon. (He had wanted to be an engineer; he went to med school to be with her.)
I wanted to be like my mother with a house and three kids. And then my father left.
If you are a Daughter of the South, you never talk about these things. It’s even worse if, like me, you are INTJ. (I know, not the Big Five Personality schema, but bear with me!)
Apparently, it makes me something of a unicorn.--From Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring: Virtues program.
According to Egle Babachinaite, we INTJ women are not good at being girly. We like hanging out with the boys. But that does not mean, at least in my experience, that we are not incurably romantic. It’s just that we--by which of course I mean I--are not very good at it. But because we have no girlfriends, at least none that know any better than we do about how to behave like womanly women, we make lots and lots of romantic mistakes.
About which we never talk.
My now husband and I went to see Beauty and the Beast in the theater back when we were living in Cardiff. I loved it, but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect. I loved that he gave her a library. I cried watching that scene.
Cardiff was not a great place to be writing my dissertation. Sure, it was close enough to Oxford for me to be able to go up and stay at one of the colleges with some of my friends. But day-to-day--this was Before the Internet--I was dependent on photocopies and the few books I could buy. Again, a good way to get the dissertation written, not being able to read Yet Another Book. But I longed for a library.
I also longed for a handsome Beast, which is what my lover was. Handsome and dangerous--because he was married. And I was forbidden because I was, too. (See, I told you it was fun!) The irony was all the greater if you know what my dissertation was about. How celibate monastic commentators read the Song of Songs as a love story between Mary and her Son.
I was ashamed--and still am--at what we did. The oldest story in the world. I have tried since to live in a way that is more truthful, but I realize now that that has been a lie. Of omission not commission, but a lie nevertheless.
Let’s see how it works now that I’ve told you the truth.
Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paulo and Francesca da Rimini (1867)