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Fortitude (Courage)

Daniel's Answer to the King, by B. Pratt after Breton Riviere, 1892

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

  • Winston Churchill

What is Fortitude?

Life is full of difficulties and challenges. As St Paul said long ago, “I do not know my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” It is one thing to know what we ought to do, but another to do it. To persist against our own inclinations to laziness, indulgence, and our weakness of will, we need the virtue of fortitude.

Fortitude is the virtue that moderates our fears. It pertains to the will – the faculty that enables us to decide and act upon an intention. It keeps us moving toward a good that we seek, in spite of difficulties that inhibit us from following right reason. Like all virtues, it is a mean between two extremes, those of cowardliness and rashness. There are two different ways of exhibiting courage: through endurance, wherein we temper our fears so as not to be controlled by them, and the ability to attack challenges, wherein we confront and withstand impediments to our will, head on.

In seeking to live the virtue of fortitude, we must be aware of the related vices of vanity, and impatience. Properly understood, the magnanimous person is one who seeks to do great things in service of others. It is therefore grounded in humility. When our primary motivations for action are the pursuit of praise, glory and recognition from others, it is a sure sign of vainglory – literally the pursuit of unworthy praise, which is ‘empty, fickle, and off the mark.’ The patient person sits with things over time and in spite of ups and downs along the way; on the other hand, the impatient person is someone who lacks the capacity to endure difficulties on the path to a goal.

Virtues related to courage that guard against these vices include magnanimity, which is related to attacking difficulties, and those of patience, perseverance, and constancy, which help us endure setbacks.

Magnanimity is ‘greatness of soul’, where we strive to do great and noble things for others. St Thomas Aquinas calls it, the “stretching forth of the mind to great things”, and seeking to do “great acts deserving of honour.” It is what we need in order to seek the goods that will truly fulfill us, warding off the temptations to laziness, and mediocrity, which ultimately make things dull and boring – a reality in which we float along in life, numb to the needs and emotions of others, and to the deep joys that await us when we open our hearts to the pursuit of the truth, and to self-giving love.

When it comes to the act of endurance, we require patience, perseverance and constancy. These three work together to see a set of actions through to completion. It is all too easy to start something, then get derailed when faced with setbacks and difficulties: we need perseverance to enable us to persist in the pursuit of good things. Another common challenge is the temptation to abandon a task for the sake of lesser goods that come across our path as we’re trying to achieve something. It is easy to be derailed from a project by focusing on little ones that are easier and quicker to achieve. We need constancy to help us stay the course. Lastly, it takes time and effort to achieve anything truly worthwhile. We need patience to maintain our attention and focus in the pursuit of a goal as time passes, and we face many opportunities to divert our course.

In summary, the virtue of courage moderates our fears and enables us to act by attacking difficulties, and enduring anxiety. It is found in every virtue, in that it gives us the strength of will to undertake and maintain our efforts in all that we do.

Written by: Peter Copeland

Interview on Fortitude (Courage) with Charles Lewis

How do you define fortitude?

It’s the ability to work through situations when things get tougher than you expected. It’s making sure not to let your doubts and insecurities get the best of you. And not be afraid of possibly failing at a task. To feel that way would mean never moving forward.

How does the virtue of fortitude relate to work?

I write and have been doing it for decades. With each assignment comes an initial doubt. Even though I’ve probably written more than 1,000 stories, I still get nervous. The most ridiculous feeling, but one common among writers: “Will this be the assignment that exposes me as a fraud?” But the virtue of fortitude tells me that the task may feel uncomfortable or even daunting, but I can overcome it. So, I just start writing and eventually skill takes over. I think the virtue of fortitude also breeds confidence.

Why is it important in a work context?

Because it’s easy to give up. Fortitude tells you to try and try and try. In my case, I have some serious and painful health concerns. I could use this as an excuse and no one would judge me. I have bailed out when the pain is too great. But I never feel badly about that because I know how much I’ve pushed myself before. Also, with fortitude there’s the desire to keep challenging myself…never to get too comfortable.

How have you personally built on this virtue?

I think I’ve built on it because I’ve reached the point that when I have doubt, I remind myself I’ve been through this before and I fought through it and won. When I was an editor, my experience often helped me to get other writers over the hump of their self-doubts and fears.

Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about fortitude?

My Opus Dei spiritual advisor has helped me to understand when you feel fear to put it in God’s hands. Essentially, it’s learning to trust in God, which in turn lessens your own fears. Also, as a former newspaper journalist, there were many editors who helped me to fight through doubt. During my first shift as an editor at the Ottawa Citizen, a colleague told me the only thing you can really do wrong is not to make a decision. That was great advice.

How have you lived this virtue at work?

I have. The proof is in the number of stories I’ve written over many years despite dealing with chronic spinal pain and cancer. It has helped me to become a better writer and, I think, a better person.

Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and did you overcome that?

I rarely have failed. It sounds like bragging, but it’s not. I worked as a freelancer for six years before landing a job at the Ottawa Citizen. I knew when I got there nothing was going to make me go back to the non-stop insecurity of freelancing. But there are times my work fell below what I thought was good. But you learn from that.

Do you have any examples of friends or colleagues living this virtue at work?

I’ve been freelancing for about six years since retiring from the National Post, so I no longer have work colleagues. There’s an editor, Amy Smith at the National Catholic Register in the U.S., who I have a lot of admiration for because of her dedication to Catholic journalism.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1950, Charles Lewis has had a varied career. He began his work life studying geology, but says he was “simply no good at it.” In his late 20s, he decided to try to write science articles related to his work in the Arctic. That led to writing freelance for several publications including the Globe & Mail. After six years of struggle, he landed a job at the Ottawa Citizen in 1988, where he was a reporter and then an editor in its financial section.

He spent a few years at other places, and in March 1999 was hired at the National Post. He spent a few years as an editor with its Toronto section and then moved on to the Financial Post where he had several jobs, including Managing Editor. In 2007, He then began reporting on religion and ethics. He retired from daily journalism in 2014 because of illness. A Catholic convert, Charles began writing columns for the Catholic Register in 2016, as well as features and book reviews for the National Catholic Register in the U.S. Charles is married to his wife Kathryn. He has one daughter and four grandchildren.

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