In principle most of us would probably say that being kind, generous, humble, and so on aren't bad qualities to have. It's just that most of us don't see a lot of this virtuous behavior in the world around us anymore. Instead, we run into people who're self-centered, demanding and arrogant and, contrary to what our grandparents may have taught us, the very people who are most lacking in moral virtues are the ones who seem to get ahead. The old saying is: Virtue is its own reward. But, how fair is that, when rewards are most frequently measured in material terms in the modern world?
The problem is that when we live in a materialistic world where good fortune is usually equated with material success, the people who show the most virtues are the ones who often end up at the bottom of the heap. Being humble in some corporate environments is a recipe for disaster. It means you'll be overlooked, or not taken seriously, that you can't compete with "the big dogs" who use aggressive tactics to get ahead. Being kind can be interpreted as weakness, being generous can cause others to take advantage of you. Why should we cultivate and practice old fashioned virtues when they don't seem to help us?
In many ways, Santería is an old-fashioned religion because it encourages traditional values like discretion, loyalty, sincerity, prudence, fairness, temperance, hard work, and strength in times of adversity. While it's not the only religion that values such moral qualities, it doesn't attach the notion of sin to our failure to practice them. Practitioners of Santería pray for firmeza, which translates as an unwavering adherence to the morally correct position, one that permits us to transcend momentary weaknesses and indecision and choose the right path in life. It's not always easy to be patient or generous, but if it's the right thing to do under the circumstances, then it's in our best interest to do it, even if it's difficult. Temperance doesn't mean giving up pleasure; it means keeping it in balance with other things in life. Pleasure loses meaning if it's all we ever experience; when it comes after a time of hard work or struggle, we feel pleasure more deeply because we know what it feels like when we have no pleasure in our lives. Temperance encourages us not to waste what we have, to respect the environment, and use only what we need. It's an antidote for greed. As part of our spiritual growth, we need to learn self-control, not because excess is a sin, but because it leads to real problems in the here and now. Strength isn't measured in external terms as a way of dominating and controlling others, but as inner strength, the ability to get through hard times without losing dignity, and the ability to recognize and admit our errors without falling into self-doubt.
The ethical code of Santería teaches us that we can't change how other people behave, but we can change the way we interact with them. Unfortunately, as the religion spreads and is embraced by people who don't fully understand it, some of the traditional virtues are being forgotten. In some Santero communities, individuals who are still relatively new to the religion already imagine that they know more than their elders. They speak as if they were the only ones to understand and possess the truth. They judge and condemn others without having a good foundation themselves. What they don't seem to grasp is that their remarkable lack of humility and respect for others detracts from their own aché as priests and priestesses of the religion. When they try to build themselves up by putting other people down, they're destroying their own prestige in the community, making enemies, and putting in jeopardy their own relationship with Olodumare and the divine. Charity is one of the most important virtues for a Santero/a because it teaches us to treat others with respect and not pass judgment on them. Obedience is another important virtue, because it reminds us that we aren't perfect, and all the knowledge of the world can't fit into one person's head. We learn as we go, and follow the teachings of our elders, so we don't take a false step along the way and end up with a distorted understanding of the religion. No one is perfect, and it shouldn't even be our goal. As humans, we're bound to make mistakes. But, we could all benefit from practicing a little more humility, patience, repect, kindness, generosity, charity, and other virtues that make our interactions with the world less difficult. If we understand that virtues are Olodumare's gift to human beings and it's our own free will that determines which, if any, we want to cultivate, we can see more clearly that virtues aren't imposed on us as restrictions, but are tools that we can use to open the path to spiritual evolution. We may not always see rewards in material terms, but we will have a less stressful and problematic day to day existence. For many people who practice Santería, that in and of itself is enough reward.