Nurturing a habit (3 of 7)

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Sometimes we stand in awe of people we meet. Not intimidated, but impressed by something real and present about them. Not so much personality as quality. This is true of J.—. And, what’s the particular quality he embodies? Well, I am not sure if we have a name for it, though we recognise it when we see it. It is something worth nurturing. A habit to practice in the hope that it becomes a virtue.

Virtue. Not so much a ‘value’—as if it’s something we can swap for something else if we change our minds. Virtue in the sense that it becomes ‘part of our DNA’—part of who we are. Something solid and indivisible from us. Something people associate with us when they think of us.

This habit, worth nurturing, comes at a cost. But the trick is (1) to see things rightly, so you know you are doing the right thing, for the right reason. That way the cost is justifiable. The other aspect to it, is (2) to endure.

I am of course speaking of fortitude. Though, as I said, it’s not a word we commonly use, now. Sometimes we think of it as courage, or bravery. But it’s not quite either of these.

Fortitude enables us to face adversity well.

And this is really a great virtue. Why?

Because life is not fair. And it is not easy. For quite a few, depending on where you live, it is very, very hard. But as a universal experience—across cultures and time—life has proved hard.

Each one of us will face difficulty. How well will we face it? That depends on the habits we form in preparation for it.

But the key thing about the virtue of fortitude is its connection with the good.

Someone like J.— is not put off by the steady pursuit of the ‘good’ just because things get tough. Even when a knife is at his throat.

Many say the greatest example of fortitude is laying down our lives for our country. There is a great magnitude of cost here (laying down our life) for a great magnitude of good (our country). And the greater the cost for a ‘true’ good, then the greater the fortitude we require. In Australia, as we approach the 100th year commemoration of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) day on the 25th of April, we remember the sacrifice of those who had died in World War I and in military operations since then.

By way of contrast, paying a great cost for something unimportant is folly. Sheer stupidity. It does not constitute fortitude.

Fortitude, therefore, is underpinned by the assumption that there is really something that matters at stake, or something to lose (your family, community or society is at risk, etc.—). That there are true goods with real value, for instance life, friendship, education and marriage.

Fortitude is also buttressed by the assumption that what we do counts. Hence ‘counting the cost’. What will we lose by committing ourselves to this? Reputation, wealth, etc.— (lesser goods); or freedom, life, etc.— (greater goods)?

J.— at the apex of his career, lost lesser goods. Very hard for someone well known and highly respected. A national leader. But he identified a true good for which he was prepared to sacrifice. He knew the probable cost to himself and his family (a further consideration), but went ahead anyway. Fortitude. Not surprising to those who know him. Over a lifetime, he’d nurtured the habit with its twin essentials of seeing matters clearly and acting to secure the good. And the habit had matured.

The point to make is suffering (ridicule, the loss of wealth or employment prospects, physical hurt, etc.—) is not good in itself. It constitutes the privation of real goods. Loss of life especially so. But suffering for the pursuit of a true good we value. We call it fortitude.

Suffering or laying down your life for something of no worth is foolhardy. Reckless bravery, too. Storming a machine gun nest has its place, but at impossible odds it shows a lack of appreciation for the worth of one’s own life. It is akin to suicide. Which is why suicide-bombers show no fortitude. They neither value their own life (the thing lost) nor do they have a true view of the good (peace, human dignity, etc.—). Rather their view of the good is in error (murdering the innocent is now seen as ‘good’). There is a difference between laying down your life for another, and just throwing it away, especially on something dreadful.

Genuine fortitude stands immovable in the presence of danger; it endures; it protects what is threatened, and at times attacks a threat. Famously it never, never surrenders. Most importantly, it is clear-sighted. It knows what it is doing and why it is of value to do so.

Where does all this fit? I have written on the importance of nurturing habits previously. Every generation has recognised the need to do so; and across cultures there seems to be agreement on the value of several virtues. Self-control (Latin. Temperāntia) is one of them; justice (Latin. Justitia), another. Fortitude (Latin. Fortitūdō) is a third.

I have written also on the challenges of being a parent with all the issues currently hounding education. An education system that wrestles with Common Core, standards and curricula and what values/virtues to teach our kids. And an education system that contains, for instance, competing narratives about (1) child-centred learning, where children are left to discover knowledge in their own way at their own speed, and (2) teacher-centred learning where skills and concepts that kids need to know are simply taught to them. I think a mix of both is sensible.

Similarly, wise parents seem to achieve a balance between being too laissez-faire and being over-protective and overly instructive—a balance that is less about ‘helicopter’ parenting or smothering children, and more about nurturing them. There are some things children need help with. Like supporting a sapling until its roots and stem are strong enough for it to endure.

The same is true for ‘parental monitoring’ (a better phrase might be ‘parental nurturing’) and technology. The beauty of parental monitoring on a TV, a browser, or the operating environment of a desktop or a mobile device, is that it aids self-regulation for a child until it becomes a habit.

In a more subtle way such parental monitoring also introduces kids to the habit of fortitude. Kids need to learn what is truly valuable, if later in life they are going to preserve, enhance or sacrifice for it. Being exposed to subjects and images that parents and society don’t widely value, or spending hours on games and EdTech apps of little worth, will not benefit kids or their friends and families over the long haul. If fortitude really stands on discernment, then parental monitoring of kids takes on huge significance with regard to digital technology—which is pervasive and only becoming more so. Will it reinforce our children’s understanding of true goods? That’s the question. It can certainly do so.

To reiterate: parental monitoring of technology creates a safe place for kids to explore and grow. A place with boundaries where they learn good communication and social interaction skills—and importantly, with reference to fortitude, what really matters. In the long run this means they are more likely to become decent citizens and to develop the strength of character to stand up for what counts. In this way, technology in K-12 and even early childhood years in relation to personal formation is a benefit. It will not only help develop self-regulation, but also fortitude.

Take away points: Whether we like it or not Common Core, standards, curricula and teachers reinforce a set of values. We might prefer the term ‘virtues’ to ‘values’ because virtues suggest a way of behaving grounded in who we are. They become intrinsic to us. (Remember Groucho Marx’ quip: I have my values, and if you don’t like them I’ve got others). Three values that seem universal are self-control, justice and fortitude. Parental monitoring and EdTech can reinforce these. As more quality video and streaming technology comes on line, especially in humanities-based subjects, parents and teachers will have a wider set of tools at hand to explore and highlight what they value. This will be vital for the development of fortitude: for the ability to discern true goods and to value them to such a degree that hardship can be endured for them.

Research: For those interested in virtues a classic place to start. Serious work. Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame Press: Indiana.

Statutory guidance for National Curriculum for K012 in England. Brief, but 3 expresses the curriculum’s aims. Note especially 3.1 with its emphasis on paradosis (handing on):

‘A little lump of coal that turns into a diamond’ singing about love. He has fortitude, so did Giacomo Puccini and Turandot:


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