Fortitude: What It Is and Why You Need It

Fortitude is the cool virtue. Fortitude sells. It is fortitude, also known as courage, strength, bravery, grit, etc., that is the virtue at the heart of virtually all action movies, adventure novels, and RPG video games. Fortitude propels John McClane to the top of Nakatomi Plaza to battle terrorists in Die Hard. Fortitude drives Sam and Frodo into Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. And fortitude compels Link to rescue Princess Zelda again and again. For an exciting and interesting life, it is worth acquiring the virtue of fortitude.

According the Catechism of the Catholic Church, fortitude is “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.” With fortitude, you are able to “conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions” and “renounce and sacrifice [your] life in defense of a just cause.”

Unlike its fellow cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, and temperance, fortitude does not go out of style. As aptly noted by fictional Satan in the Screwtape Letters, “[w]e have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice.”

Fortitude is easy to identify in others and hard not to respect. I was standing in line for lunch at a forward operating base in Iraq when I noticed the soldier behind me had his arm in a sling. I was a 23-year-old engineer in a combat zone for the first time. He was a grizzled middle-aged guy with a dirty uniform. I asked him what happened, and he said nonchalantly that he got shot the day before and fell out of his Humvee breaking his arm. Surprised, I asked if he got any time off for that. He said it was not a big deal, so he is back to work because the bullet wound was minor and his arm injury was not that painful. He was in good spirts a kept doing his job despite a recent, potentially deadly, experience. That was fortitude and I was impressed.

You need fortitude in the battlefield, but also in life. Fortitude is the virtue that give us the power to withstand difficulties that stand in the way of our goals. Fortitude also allows you to build character and figure out who you are.

The Engine of Character

Beyond just being the fodder for action movies, fortitude plays a significant role in developing your character and finding out what matters to you in life. The reason for this is that in a crisis, be it involving work, family, health, or relationships, you must determine what matters to you. What is worth taking action and enduring discomfort to get through?

When you are young, you naturally adopt the identity of others. This is natural and part of growing up. Without consciously realizing it, you take on goals, beliefs, values, traits, and preferences from others. These others are the parents, friends, and teachers that help to shape you. This can be a good thing, but there is a risk in adopting the identity given to you without examination.

The problem is that it is not easy or comfortable to think critically about your identity. In fact, some people go through life without ever really doing this. Unless you think long and hard about what means the most to you, what you value, and what life you want to live you wind up hauling around a lot of other people’s baggage that should not be part of who you really are.

For most people, it takes a crisis to get you started on finding out your identity. The struggle of finding out what in life is not working forces you to drop assumptions, habits, and beliefs that are not your own and learn new strengths that are from your core of being. In this way fortitude allows you to overcome hard times in a way that, however unpleasant the experience, you develop character.

The Value of Hard Times

In a time of crisis you experience fear. The fear is a fear of losing something that you love. You could be afraid of losing your life, losing your job, losing your stability, or losing anything that you care very much about. Practicing fortitude, you identify what matters to you and how much it matters to you.

Back in 2007, my wife, Kailin, and I decided that I should get out of the military and we could both go back to college and she could finish up her bachelor’s degree and I could get a law degree. It seemed like a decent idea at the time, though we had no savings and our son was less than a year old. The economy was not that great and we figured that we would wait it out and get degrees while we at it.

Things started out okay and we tried to take out as few loans as we could and did not have credit cards. This was a good financial move long term but by our first Thanksgiving we ran out of money and were running low on food. With the school offices closed for the holiday and no credit cards we did not have a quick way to even get a little bit extra money to get by.

For any college student this sucks, but as a father trying to support a family with a small child, this was horrifying. Thankfully, Kailin was able to figure out how to get some food a local charity along with a voucher for the grocery store.

We went to the grocery store with the voucher to get some food. I decided to get the ingredients for our favorite recipe at the time which was chicken with a cider based sauce. As I went to check out with my one year old in the shopping cart, I noticed the scornful look on the cashier’s face. “Sorry, you can’t buy alcohol with that voucher” as she gruffly took the hard cider and placed it behind the register. That was a low point. Not only had I run out of money for my family, but I am also the guy getting scolded by the grocery store clerk for trying to misuse food money. Not a good feeling as a dad.

Sweating in college. The air conditioning was broke but our spirts were not.

Eventually the school offices opened and I was able to get more loan money, but the rest of our college experience was a massive financial struggle with the economy only getting worse as time went on. In the back of my mind the whole time was the fear that I might have made a mistake that was going to put our family in a bad spot for the foreseeable future. When I finally was able to get a job and be somewhat financially stable again despite all the loans, I was relieved, but I also was a different person from before.

In a sense, going back to school with no money and a family was a mildly traumatic experience that I would never repeat. On the other hand, it made me value my family more and realize how you can still get by in the absence of money and stability. Other changes that I noticed afterwards were that 1) I became more careful about saving money for emergencies, 2) I stopped making some of the frivolous purchases that I would have made in the past, and 3) I developed a real appreciation for poor families and how society judges them. It took surviving a bad financial experience to learn some lessons that I really needed to learn.

The Parts of Fortitude

During the pandemic, I discovered a reality TV show on the History Channel called Alone. In Alone, ten contestants are dropped in a remote Canadian location with a limited selection of survival equipment. The contestants attempt to survive in the wilderness as long as possible and the last remaining contestant wins $500,000. What is great about Alone, is that unlike other survival type reality shows, Alone seems real.

Survivor devolves into lame challenges and people lying to each other. Man v. Wild features contrived survival situations and is staged. But Alone seems real. The contestants confront real bears and, when their survival strategies fail, face genuine hunger. In a sense, it is a great experiment in fortitude.

One thing that is interesting is that beyond the few contestants who are medically evacuated for injuries and illnesses, the contestants who choose to voluntarily leave, or “tap” to use the MMA term the show has adopted, fall into two categories.

The first category of contestants who tap are those who get scared senseless when confronting the wild. Many of the contestants choose to tap after the terrifying experience of a bear sniffing around their tent at night or hearing wolves circling their campsite. The type of fortitude required to get through this type of immediate threat is that of acting courageously also know as aggression or attack. In these situations, the contestants have the unpleasant task of attempting to scare off large predators that might consider them to be food.

The second category of contestants who tap are those who are just ground down by the experience of surviving in the wild. They are cold, hungry, scared, and lonely.  They are subsisting on eating mice and reindeer moss. They miss their loved ones and cannot wait to get home. As noted by Garrigou-Lagrange in The Three Ages of the Interior Life, “[i]t is more difficult for a soldier to hold out for a long time under a shower of bullets in a cold damp trench than with all the ardor of his temperament to take part in an attack.” The type of fortitude required to get through long periods in unpleasant situations is endurance.

Fear = Love x Risk

Fortitude is not necessary in the absence of fear and fear does not exist in the absence of love. A way of thinking of this is that fear equals love multiplied by the risk of losing that what you love.

I do not have much fear of an intruder stealing by garbage from the curb. It would be creepy, but I do not love my trash. Therefore, even though there is a decent risk of someone stealing my trash completely unprotected on the curb, I do not have much fear of this because I do not have love of what might be lost.

On the other hand, I do have fear of someone breaking into my house and stealing or hurting one of my kids. Although the odds of this happening are very low, the great love that I have for my family leads to having fear of this loss even though the risk is small.

Love of comfort can also lead to fear of losing comfort. If you are thinking of a necessary action that is going to cause you to lose comfort this will cause fear. For example, if you want to get in shape this is going to require eating healthy and exercising. Eating healthy and exercising are uncomfortable, in other words, you will risk the loss of comfort. This risk is moderated by how much you love comfort. If you do not love the comfort of eating what you want and avoiding discomfort, then you will have less fear of getting in shape.

Fortitude enters into the equation as it determines how much fear you are willing to tolerate to achieve a goal. Those strong in the virtue of fortitude will take necessary actions even when they have a high amount of fear. In the absence of fortitude, the only way to take necessary actions is to ensure that they are low risk, things you do not love, or things that are both low risk and low love. In other words, in the absence of fortitude, you must play it safe and pursue goals that are easy or that you are not very personally invested in. Without fortitude you will not choose to pursue and achieve meaningful goals.

Vices Opposed to Fortitude

To understand what fortitude is, it helps to understand what it is not. Three vices opposed to fortitude are cowardice, fearlessness, and recklessness.

Cowardice

The most obvious vice opposed to fortitude is cowardice. Cowardice is an inordinate fear compared to the good that is sought to be achieved that prevents you from doing your duty. In other words, a person acts cowardly when they let fear stop them from pursuing some goal that is really worth pursuing.

Notice that to determine if you are acting cowardly you must have a goal worth pursuing or something that you do not want to lose.

One of the most interesting things about Alone is how the contestants explain the reasons that they “tapping” and calling in the rescue crew to come get them, giving up a chance of winning the $500,000. They never just say that they are scared of bears or that they are hungry and would like a hamburger. Rather, they say, “It’s not worth it”. The contestants then explain the other things in their life that they miss, fear losing if they are eaten by a bear, or otherwise value more than $500,000. These reasons generally include wanting to see their kids or spouse again. One man who was close to winning quit the show because his mother had cancer and he was afraid of not seeing her before she died. In the end, although these contestants that dropped out did not win $500,000 it was not really cowardice as they appeared genuinely concerned that they would not see their family again.

On the other hand, if opposed to a reality TV show the contestants on Alone were actually living in the wild and fending off bears was necessary to protect their family, I suspect that most of the contestants would have rose to the occasion. To do otherwise would be cowardice as one’s family is of infinitely greater value than $500,000.

Fearlessness

Another vice opposed to fortitude is fearlessness, or the absence of legitimate fear that causes you to do stupid things. Like cowardice, fearlessness is a balancing act between fear and something that you value.  To be fearless, in the negative/vice sense of the word, you must understand the risk that you are taking and the good thing that you risk losing.

For example, everyone should be afraid of drunk driving. Even on a good year in America, drunk driving kills over 10,000 people. To put that in context, that is more than twice the number of Americans killed in the Iraq War. Yet every day people go out drinking, knowing that they will be driving under the influence, with no fear. That is not a rational choice and, instead, is an example of the vice of fearlessness.

Recklessness

At first glance, recklessness seems much like fearlessness as it involves a person doing something stupid. However, it is different. Recklessness involves accepting too great a risk for too little of a reward. Interestingly, the word “reckless” comes from the same Old English word that give us to “reckon”, meaning to consider. In other words, acting recklessly is to act without due consideration.

Interestingly, in criminal law, a reckless act can put you in jail. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “recklessness” as “[c]onduct whereby the actor does not desire harmful consequence but … foresees the possibility and consciously takes the risk.” Examples of people charged criminal recklessness from the apparent criminal recklessness hotspot of Indiana provide examples of doing things that are stupid and not worth it:

How to Increase Your Fortitude

While you are not likely to have to fight in a gun battle or rescue a pet from a burning building in the immediate future, life is full of crises that require fortitude to overcome and grow. Health problems, work problems, relationship problems, and any other type of unpleasant life event require fortitude if you are to overcome these obstacles in any meaningful way.

But how do you know that you will be able to confront life’s hurricanes when they come your way? One way is though having a history of prevailing and surviving tough times. In that sense, all the rough experiences in your past help you to acquire fortitude.

It is also worth actively developing the habit of fortitude. To develop this habit, it is best to break things down by its components of acting courageously and enduring difficult things.

To learn to act courageously requires you taking actions outside of your comfort zone and to learn to be more comfortable with fear. It is best to start small which will make it easier and more automatic to act courageously in the big things. Examples of small acts of courage in everyday life include:

  • Standing up for people who are not popular or who are bullied
  • Public speaking even though you are nervous
  • Telling the truth, even when not convenient
  • Giving constructive feedback to friends when it would help them
  • Trying something that you are afraid of doing
  • Overcoming biases to be friends with people with different from yourself

As you can see, beyond the battlefield, small acts of courage can put you outside of your comfort zone, but ultimately for the greater good of living by your principles, helping others, and improving yourself by developing courage.

Learning to endure the difficult and uncomfortable requires more time and commitment. In a sense, learning to endure means learning how to honor commitments that you made to yourself. You can develop endurance by committing to do moderately challenging things and sticking to it.

Examples of commitments that you could make to increase endurance include:

  • Giving up a food item that you like
  • Checking social media only once a day
  • Committing to an exercise program
  • Praying or meditating every day for a set period
  • Cleaning a room or workspace every day

For training endurance, it is always best to pick an end date for your goal to evaluate your progress and decide if you want to keep doing what you are doing. In the absence of an end date, you run the risk of failing all your resolutions because you eventually move on to other things and forget about your commitment.

Fortitude is a gift that keeps on giving. When you develop fortitude it gives meaning to your struggles and opens the door to an exciting life of challenges overcome. Instead of looking at setbacks as failures, with fortitude, your setbacks start to become adventures. This changes the way that you look at your past and gives you hope and confidence in the future even when there are dark clouds on the horizon.

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On one of the few days during the COVID-19 pandemic that we left town, my family and I went to Lake Erie and had a family day watching the water and exploring the beaches.

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