Fortitude – Week 6

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. 

This week, I focused on the relationship between fortitude, effort and difficulty.

I can control the way that I relate to the world and others – what some would call my energy, or my presence. I can make myself large or small, harsh or smooth, erect imaginary walls to protect myself, or aggressively project myself forward. Modifying the quality of my presence requires a deliberate effort of attention and imagination which, with habit, becomes easier. If I anchor myself deep in the ground, project a goal, conjure allies behind me, and actively take centre, I will have greater influence in any situation. But often I simply let things happen, and others take over. This fleeting state of being in the world goes against fortitude.

I experiment with new ways of sequencing my physical exercises – in particular, rather than getting through thirty-two push ups, then do 32 squats, I alternate. Certain muscles relax while I flex others, and not only can I do more in less time, but the difficulty reduces, so that I recover faster. The goal of exercise is not to be tired, but strong: therefore, smart pacing is part of fortitude.

This is where two versions of the virtue may clash – let’s call them Greek and Chinese. In the Greek tradition, the dominant way to think about courage is under the guise of heroism: this is not about results, but an individual facing danger, even when death is certain, to make a point or set an example, because it is the right thing to do. This is courage in the Iliad. Odysseus achieves the result of bringing the Greeks inside Troy through cunning, yet receives ambiguous respect. In contrast, the Chinese tradition considers result over subjective drive. Fortitude here is about the great man patiently bearing with a negative situation so that, when it changes, they can rise up to the occasion, and make things right again. This is the wisdom of the Yi Jing: bear with evil, for it will pass on its own; preserve yourself, for you will be needed later.

On Thursday morning, I did a mediocre PhD mid-candidature presentation. I have chosen to pursue three strands of work: research on digital learning tools, editing for the Global Challenges Foundation, and program development for Marco Polo Project. This is an ongoing debate in my head: is fortitude the courage to let one of those go, because the workload is too high and I will disappoint? Or is fortitude tolerating a lower level of achievement on more secondary aspects of each project, and the mild discomfort that goes with it? The same tension echoes within my PhD research: I deliberately positioned my attempt at understanding digital Chinese language learning across disciplines, for I believe it is the only way to properly grasp the nature of the object. As a result, I must pay special attention to conceptual consistency and accessibility to readers with different types of expertise. This is not unacknowledged, yet I’m not getting too much slack for even attempting. I wonder therefore: is fortitude better supported by cheers, or by consistently demanding high standards irrespective of difficulty? And to what extent do the structures of our training and learning institutions support fortitude – and the decision to do what is important and relevant, rather than what can be done with perfection within an existing paradigm?

Then I started thinking of a new way to understand fortitude: the virtue reduces the role that difficulty plays in our decision-making. It helps us guide our lives and actions not on the basis of whether something will be hard, but whether it is right, important, and fulfilling.

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 201

Sit-ups: 201

Squats: 201

Dog-cows: 201

Bird-dogs: 201

Back twists: 201

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 6 reps for each element

Meditation: 5 sessions


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