On Singular vs. Collective Virtue: Can I Alone Be the Adult in the Room?

kids with emoji faces

By Amy Carr

“I want to be the adult in the room.”

Recently I have heard two quite different individuals say this, each time referring to a shared institutional context — albeit from very different standing points in our institution.

Each time it puzzled me.

If a room of adults isn’t acting mature in some way, what words or actions are construed as immature?

Is it that too many are playing the old Adam-and-Eve blame game? Is it that some are expressing anger publicly? Is it that some among us are more literary and ironic in expression, while others are matter-of-fact or prefer something akin to a good old boys network?

What constitutes immaturity among a group of adults, in this instance?

And if I claim to want to be the adult in the room, is that to protect the image of my own moral purity?

Is it to serve as a seed crystal that will instantly trigger more adult behavior in those around me — like that first crystal of ice in water that sparks the rest of the water to solidify too?

As Hsün Tzu said centuries ago, “Environment is everything! Environment is everything!”

Who each of us is individually in any given situation is never apart from who we are in that context. No wonder then that Jesus’ ministry first involved calling disciples, so as to create a new common culture together.

I do not doubt that individual efforts matter with regard to practicing wisdom and just relations. We are drawn to stories about heroes who stand out for their moral courage, acting against something they perceive as very wrong out of a vision of a higher good.

But as the Rule of Benedict knows in its bones, the shape of the community is what makes a monastery, not a single monastic.

The Rule does not cultivate personal virtue in the abstract; instead, it speaks to each of us only within the texture of a shared life.

So perhaps instead of asking, “How can I be the adult in the room?” we might ask:  “How can we foster more trust and cooperation in our community, especially if it is a time of crisis?”

But what do you think? Am I missing something?

When it comes to communal decision-making, how much is the contribution of one mature person still conditioned by the attitudes, words, and actions that flavor a community overall?






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