Fortitude – week 1

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

Fortitude has two main components, which I reflected on through the week: a readiness to confront danger, and a firm resolution to persevere in spite of obstacles.

In the Christian tradition, the test of fortitude is martyrdom. More broadly, courage – a core element of fortitude – is a willingness to confront death. As I thought about the way that I would engage with fortitude, I thought of the virtue as preparation for death.

My initial approach, in the first month, was to put my affairs in order, so that, if I died, the living could make a decision to pick up the various things I am developing where I left them, or bury them with me. On Sunday, I swept across the house, gathering scattered bits of archives, papers, and USBs, bringing them all to the one room. There was less than I thought. Then, I started searching through my paper folders and, at least, ensure that things are in the right place, manuscript with manuscript and bank statement with bank statement. Now everything is ready for a larger sweep through.

In parallel to this engagement with the things I own and the various types of paper trails that make up my social self, I developed a routine to strengthen my physical body. Every day, I will do the following series of exercises: push up, sit up, squat, back twist, cow-dog, dog-bird, starting with one repetition on the first day, and adding one per day until the end of the season. I have never been to the gym and exercise little. Already by Monday, I started feeling nicely toned and – on Wednesday – had a pleasant feeling of physical tiredness come evening. This is not only preparation for death, but preparing for danger: should I need to, to the extent that it is in my power to train, I should not be prevented from action by lack of physical strength. Fitness is, in that sense, part of fortitude.

“What would you die for, then?” asked Peter on Tuesday, as I shared my approach to fortitude as preparation for death. I replied that, luckily, I was born in a position, at a time and in a society where the question is rather abstract – and therefore had no clear answer. “What would you willing to be damaged for, then?” he continued, but as I reflected, this is a very different proposition. “Either the matter is serious enough that it is worth dying for, and staking all we have is likely to carry more weight – in fact, it may be safer. But if it is not serious enough to warrant dying for, then risking damage is lack of prudence – for if we lose our capacity to react with full strength, then what shall we do when more serious evil arises?”

On Thursday, Philip had got us tickets to see Janet Mock at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Trans black activist, she spoke of her various challenges. One of them was this: “I have to be gracious,” she said, “or I will come across as an angry black woman, and nobody will pay attention.” Patience to bear stupidity with a smile was, in that case, the required form of fortitude, not bravely standing up to shout.

What is the different, I reflected on Friday, between courage and anger? There is a passion that fuels our desire to stand up, resist, fight, attack even – and we can harness it for good. Yet it is different from the virtue that, rather, demands a calm assessment of the circumstances and, on this basis, that we bravely move against evil, or bravely bear it with patience.


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