Fortitude – Week 3

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. 

In this third week, I reflected on the relationship between fortitude, strength and confidence.

After two weeks of gradual build-up, I feel physically more able to go through the set of exercises I imposed on myself daily. I can better control their execution, both because the muscles have grown, and because my brain is more in tune with my body.

As I become more aware of my own capacity, I no longer think of those exercises as a chore, but a means to an end. On Monday, I did all of them first thing in the morning, so that I could benefit from the rush of creativity that follows physical exertion. As I did, I reflected on that very decision as a mark of fortitude. Rather than jump into the day mindlessly, guided by a sneaky sense of anxiety that if I didn’t start right there and then, I would never get everything done that I must, I took my time to prepare myself, which – in turn – would allow me to better execute, and faster. Thus, physical exercise became preparation for work – and delaying direct engagement with the task a form of patience and courage.

Training has a cumulative effect, and brings a sense of ease. On Tuesday, then again on Wednesday, I did all exercises in a row, right after waking up, fifteen then sixteen push ups in a sequence, followed by sit-ups, dog-birds, cow-dogs, back twists and squats. This brought a deep sense of pleasure: not only was I able to do that much, but I could save time and effort. Each decision we make has a cost, including each time we start something new. Three small work-out sessions therefore, at three different times in the day, is more demanding on the brain than a single chunk. If I know that I can tackle a larger task, I can mentally bundle smaller ones into the one, and save energy for more.

Part of my approach to fortitude is envisaging my own mortality by reflecting on my own sense of time – and the first step I chose to take for this was to clear my personal archives. I took a day off on Thursday, after submitting the final chapter draft for my coming PhD milestone. In the morning, I headed off to South Melbourne for a café stroll. I came back home in the mid-afternoon, and dived into the photographs on my computer. While sitting under the metal awnings on York Street, I read about courage as belief in your own strength. The prospect of sorting through the jpegs on my Mac exceeded my sense of possibility, but then I thought – at least I can start. I ordered ‘all my files’ by type, and calmly went through the pictures, from the beginning, clearing doubles and ordering them in folders – meanwhile playing a backlog of podcasts. After five hours, I was two thirds of the way through. I had an early start on Friday, finished work around 5, and by 6h30pm, I was done. In less than seven hours, I completed an impossible task.

Exercise tally for the week

Push-ups: 93

Sit-ups: 93

Squats: 93

Dog-cows: 93

Bird-dogs: 93

Back twists: 93

Meditation: 3 sessions of 30’

Fortitude – Week 2

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 reflected on fortitude as ‘fitness’, or nurturing our readiness for action.

Fortitude requires vitality, and therefore, entails a measure of self-care. There was a minor controversy during the Melbourne Writers Festival: should self-care be considered an important part of activism? Yes, argued Laurie Penny from London – since without it, we lose the collective and personal capacity to move our ideas ahead.

On Monday, I sorted through the files of an old computer, which held copies of all the texts I have written since 2002: hundreds of documents, including an entire novel I had forgotten about, together with the text of a travel blog that I lost access too, and was taken off the Internet. I am unsure exactly what I will do with this fifteen-year portfolio, but arranging it felt like discovering a forgotten savings account from years ago, and realising, with pleasure, that accrued interest had meanwhile yielded a substantial sum – making more ambitious plans and projects a greater possibility.

Fortitude is preparation for death. To that extent, it closely relates with our own mortality, and our own sense of time. The two dimensions of fortitude reflect the two fundamental dimensions of time – chronos and kairos, or time as duration and time as critical moment. The virtue demands that we bear patiently with the resistance of the real, in the world and ourselves, resolutely building habits and accepting the need for sustained effort. The virtue demands – just as much – that we be ready for critical moments when decision action is required and, when the moment arrives, that we press ahead.

Temperance, as I discovered, was all about exploring pleasure, learning to derive satisfaction not from excess and gluttony, but a calm and moderate relationship with natural processes. In contrast, fortitude, at least in those early weeks, is entirely goal-driven. I experience the most profound boredom in conducting a daily routine of exercise, I resent the time required now and – as I project myself eleven weeks ahead – the time I will have to spend on self-strengthening, in line with my commitment, at the end of the season. Yet I stick with it, not for intrinsic enjoyment, but belief that the method is right, and the goal is worthy.

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. This week’s exercise tally:

Push-ups: 57

Sit-ups: 57

Squats: 57

Back twists: 57

Dog-birds: 57

Cow-birds: 57

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 2 reps for each element

Meditation: 3 sessions of 30’ each. (I started only this week, and therefore caught up on a missed session from last week).

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.


Cardinal virtues – a project for 2017

prudence-2 temperance-2fortitude-2 justice-2

This is a sharp memory from my grade Ten French class. We were studying French moralist writers of the 17th century, and our teacher explained one of the fundamental religious debates of the time: the respective role of Grace and Virtues on our salvation. It was the height of religious wars in Europe, and the question of Grace was at the core of a theological opposition between Protestants and Catholics, echoed in France in a polemic between two Catholic factions, the Jesuits and the Jansenists (represented by Pascal). According to Jesuit views – inspired by Renaissance Humanism – God offers his supernatural grace to all humans; it is our duty to meet Him halfway, and use our free-will to deliberately cultivate virtues and accomplish good works. This goes directly against the belief of Jansenists – as well as most Protestant theology – who take a more pessimistic view of mankind: our sinful nature is such that only the Grace of God has efficacy to grant us salvation. All attempts at cultivating moral virtues and conducting good works carry the risk of fostering pride and delusion.


What exactly do we mean when we talk of virtues? For over twenty years, I’ve worn a symbol of my father’s home region around my neck, the ‘guardian cross’, blending a heart, an anchor and a cross. The symbol represents Faith, Hope and Love – three virtues that Paul’s Epistles identify as defining Christianism, and known together as theological virtues. Today, in our post-Christian world, the word virtue evokes at worst a conceited bigot, at best a coy individual, looking for shelter from a corrupting world. But it was not always this way: in its original meaning, virtue has the same root as ‘virile’, and refers to the character of a good citizen – in a famous reflection on the dominant affect in various, Montesquieu associates Virtue to Republican rule. Through the works of Sts Ambrosius, Augustine and Thomas,Catholic theology considers not three, but seven fundamental virtues. Four cardinal virtues, identified in the works of Aristotle, and therefore common to Christians and Pagans, complement Faith, Hope and Love: known as Cardinal Virtues, they are Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. On a recent public profile I wrote – ‘I like to listen and look for common ground’. My exploration of Cardinal Virtues in 2017 will both allow me to reconnect with my own Catholic heritage, and reflect on universal forms of good behaviour – what makes a good citizen in a range of tradition, and how to cultivate one’s own character.


Last year, I started a daily blogging project – a daily page of handwriting which I posted online after light editing. After three months, this was interrupted by a demanding new role with the Global Challenges Foundation. The project I was in charge of setting up has now found its shape, systems are in place, and I’ve been able to reduce the extent of my engagement. This allows me to resume daily writing meditation. So this is what I propose for 2017. I will associate a virtue to each season: Prudence and Summer, Temperance and Autumn, Justice and Winter, Fortitude and Spring. Every day, I will reflect on the season’s virtue, decide a way to practice it over the course of the day, and write about the experience in the evening in a diary. At the end of each week, I will write a short blog post summarising what I did and learnt. Marking the end of each season, I will take a full week to reflect, and compose a deeper written meditation. The project will blend writing and practice – and hopefully, lead both to personal transformation and valuable intellectual insights.

I look forward to this year exploring virtues – and hope we can all learn from this.