It has always been perplexing to me why my natural tendency seems to lead me away from actions that will provide happiness and fulfillment, while moving towards that state seems like swimming upstream.
I spent the first half of my life starting and then stopping certain practices or activities I thought were important for me. These interests would later gradually cool down and then disappear just at the point where I was getting proficient. I started and quit playing the piano and guitar. I quit wrestling when I was the best in my weight class. I quit track. I quit boy scouts just shy of the Eagle designation.
I have started and stopped hobbies and other interests too many to number. I could do anything for a short period of time if the need was urgent enough. But to practice certain things every day, day in and day out, for years at a time – this was beyond me. I littered this part of my life with many beginnings but few finishes. You could call me an outstanding “underachiever”.
More recently in my work with men in recovery from addictions, I have watched with sadness this same phenomenon but with dire consequences— a young man starts to recover and get his life in order, and then slowly let go of the very practices that gave him this precious gift.
The difference between those who change their lives and obtain permanent recovery and those that don’t is what is referred to in classical morality as the virtue of fortitude. Fortitude is the chief characteristic of those who after five-ten-fifteen years still do the same things that were suggested they do in the beginning of their recovery. Here is the classical definition:
Fortitude: Firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.
Fortitude, as all virtues (temperance, justice, compassion) is obtained both through practice and by prayer. It is similar to courage and bravery, but not to be confused with those moments courage and bravery are immediately called upon.
I have had my moments of brave action when called upon. But fortitude requires something even more difficult. It requires a daily response to my human inertia and weakness. It is a relentless faithfulness to a chosen way of life.
I can see fortitude in action if I open my eyes. I see it in the young mother who forgets her own needs as she constantly sees to the never -ending needs of her young children.
I see it in the elderly couple who have remained loving and attentive to each throughout their years.
I see it in the commitment of the religious who have taken vows and live a radical life of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability as signs and beacons to the world of what a commitment to a way of life can produce.
The power of fortitude cannot be easily discounted. No venture has ever succeeded without it.
Over sixteen years ago, motivated by an urgent necessity, I asked myself what few critical activities that if I did them every day would give me the best chance of doing what I was put on earth to do – to do God’s will. I then made a personal commitment to do these few simple things every single day —no matter what. I even had a friend I would call regularly to give an account.
Stripped down to their essence, they are:
- Morning Prayer: How can I be useful to God and my fellow man today?
- Morning Meditation: Short spiritual reading followed by silence and stillness
- Make it your goal to be helpful to someone today (and try not to get caught!)
- Reach out and connect to someone today (Spouse, child, friend)
- Read something today that stretches me mentally and spiritually
- Be involved in a community – Church, group, civic or charitable organization
- Evening Examine and prayer: What went well, what I need help in for a better tomorrow.
These are my critical few. They have become my core value activities. I will admit I do not do them perfectly, nor have I done them every single day. Yet, I have set for myself a goal that no more than three days will go by without doing them all. This list has become both my foundation and my training ground.
There is a phrase I return to often – “Staying on the Beam”. That is where fortitude comes in. A gymnast has to do a few basic things to “stay on the beam” Do they ever fall off? Plenty of times. But to stay on their gymnastics team, they get right back on-as if they never fell. That is fortitude in action.
In the “Rule of St. Benedict” – a ninth century rule of life followed by all Benedictine monks and sisters, it says “Always, we begin again”. That is the spirit behind the virtue of fortitude. Each morning is an opportunity to practice what I have chosen as critical – to forget about yesterday, and start my life again.
What freedom there is to begin each day again, as if it were the first.
There once was a young man who asked an old holy man how best to pray. The old man looked at him with compassion and said simply “There is only one way to pray: Start – and don’t stop”.
To sum up: Fortitude to a simple rule of life is the path to an interior liberty, contentment, and joy.
Here is one of the great promises fortitude has to offer us:
“If we persist, remarkable things will happen. When we look back, we realize that the things that came to us when we put ourselves in God’s Hands were better than anything we could have planned.” Bill Wilson
I listed at the beginning of this reflection a litany of things I started and stopped as a teen and young man. In the few years since adopting my list of the critical few disciplines, I have realized many of my desires:
- After two failed attempts, I passed my Certified Safety Professional Exam.
- I finished the Seattle -to -Portland bike ride (suffering five flat tires!)
- I completed the Mountaineers Climbing course (it took me two years instead of one!)
- I ran two marathons
- I summited Mount Rainer after seven years of training and two failed attempts
- I won a regional poetry and essay contest after writing for fifteen years.
- My company won a regional safety award
- I went to Ireland and Rome with my wife (a 42 yr. dream)
It may seem incredulous that a short list of daily spiritual disciplines could lead to someone realizing their deepest dreams- all I know is I can see a straight line from the day I embraced my little list to my life today.
One final thought. When I do look back, I cannot help but realize the goodness in my life has come from God in response to fortitude, which itself is a gift.
In the words of Johann Goethe:
“Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Take some time this week to reflect:
- Pray for the virtue of fortitude. Fortitude is not a skill. It is a gift that comes with the willingness to practice. Ask for it.
- What are the deepest desires of your heart?
- What life path are you on – what is your personal “rule of life” that will help you realize your desires?
- What “Critical Few” practices can you commit to and build your life upon? Are you willing to share this with someone close to you?
- Commit yourself each day to your list of practices.
- IF you miss… begin again. Get back on the beam….
Then Strap in your seat belt, because you are in for one hell of a ride!
I would love to hear from you…