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?





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

  1. Thank you for your reflection and questions Amy. I have a funny anecdote that I think might contribute to this discussion. I was living in a l’Arche community home which was much bigger than most and had some real personalities (drama queens). We often felt the tensions of community life during our evening meals, especially at the beginning of the meal when people were still feeling hungry and tired from their day. When things were getting out of hand and no one was really listening to the “mature” assistants (staff), one sensitive and quiet guy would pipe up loudly with his one joke, “if we don’t quiet down now, we will have to eat liver for breakfast!”. Everyone always laughed and it was easy to then change the subject so as to eat in communal peace.

    My only point is to say that it can be the least expected person, the one with the simple warning disguised as a joke, who ultimately can pinpoint that we are behaving like brats and bullies, victims and drama queens. I remember Gaston as bringing peace to the community which is a very mature thing to do! Most problems can be solved if we think about liver for breakfast!!


  2. Thank you, Madeleine! That is a wonderful and apt story. (And apologies that it took long for your comment to be properly posted.) Humor helps so often, calling us to another framing of things.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s