335 Fortitude & Rules for Living

A great 19th century Princeton theologian, A.A. Hodge, lamented:  “It is easier to find a score of men wise enough to discover the truth, than to find one intrepid enough, in the face of opposition, to stand up for it.”  That’s still true, for as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn noted:  “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today.   .  .  .  .  Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society.”  Calling for a renewal of courage (one of the four cardinal virtues) Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw wrote Fortitude:  American Resilience in an Age of Outrage (New York:  Grand Central Publishing, Kindle Edition, c.  2020).  

Crenshaw begins by recounting a recent incident in the halls of Congress, featuring a group of protesters wearing “shirts that simply read ‘stay outraged,’ along with a matching assortment of signs and buttons that appeared to be professionally crafted from an established vendor, not purchased hastily from some ragtag print shop” (p. 2).  They were obviously embracing the posture of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who once tweeted:  “Never lose your sense of outrage,” relying on the fact that “the most effective political manipulation is achieved by raw emotion” (p. 2).   Rather than a thoughtful land of self-control and discussion, America has descended into an irrational culture of outrage which is “the latest threat to our American story” because of “the victimhood ideology that it elevates.  The threat is born of small beginnings, as big threats so often are.  It starts with toxic personal narratives wrapped in the cheap cloth of victimhood, always looking to an external culprit to blame for real or perceived injustices” (p. 221).  Instead,  Crenshaw insists we need something much better than unfettered emotions!  To him, a former Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander who lost an eye on the battlefields of Afghanistan:  “Outrage is weakness.  It is the muting of rational thinking and the triumph of emotion.”  It’s not a virtue and “rarely is it productive, virtuous, or useful.  It is an emotion to overcome, not accept, and overcoming it requires mental strength. This book is about acquiring that necessary mental fortitude” (p. 4). 

Crenshaw’s “basic message is this:  If you’re losing your cool, you are losing.  If you are triggered, it is because you allowed someone else to dictate your emotional state.  If you are outraged, it is because you lack discipline and self-control.  These are personal defeats, not the fault of anyone else.  And each defeat shapes who you are as a person, and in the collective sense, who we are as a people.”  It is crucial that we Americans build “a society of iron-tough individuals who can think for themselves, take care of themselves, and recognize that a culture characterized by grit, discipline, and self-reliance is a culture that survives.  A culture characterized by self-pity, indulgence, outrage, and resentment is a culture that falls apart.  It really is that simple, and it is a truly existential choice.  We must make that choice.  And it must be a choice to be more disciplined, mentally tougher, and convinced of the fact that we control our own destiny.  The next chapter of our American story depends on it” (p. 10).

To provide perspective Crenshaw tells us that as a child he wanted to be a SEAL and ultimately fulfilled his aspirations on the battlefields of Afghanistan, where he was seriously injured by an exploding roadside bomb.  The doctors thought he would lose sight in both eyes, but he believed (and prayed) that one of them would, with appropriate surgery, heal.   “Though I am not one for overt expressions of faith, I will say this:  I genuinely believe God’s strength was working through me then.  He was allowing me to believe something impossible.  I prayed, and my family prayed, and we believed. We believed that military surgeons would pick through a pierced and shrapnel-ridden eye, remove the most minuscule shards and debris, and restore my sight. We did not have good reason to believe it. But we did” (p. 25).  Choosing to be positive, to hope for the best, was something his parents taught him.  He knew he could embrace either hope or despair, and he realized that, as Aristotle taught, that “habit defines us.  Before we pursue our higher purpose, before we have quality of character, we have habit.  My habit was to never quit.  My habit was to avoid self-pity and believe in a better future, albeit with a bit less vision.”   Importantly:  “Those habits were forged by lessons from a dying mother; her grit, her humor, her grace.  They were shaped in lessons from a loving father who gave us a decent life and refused to be beaten by the loss of the woman he had planned to spend his life with” (p. 34).

The lessons learned at home were reinforced by his BUD/S SEAL training (“the most effective screening process in the United States Armed Forces”) and subsequent service.  Taking note of his best officers he saw that they were not necessarily the strongest or best shooters.  Indeed:  “The qualities that made SEAL leaders great were rarely physical in nature” (p. 46).  The legendary SEAL toughness turns out to be more mental than physical!  Above all, they were calm, self-controlled, thoughtful.  They also insisted everyone be responsible for himself and his team.  “It was why Commander Jocko Willink, one of my mentors in the teams, wrote an entire book about the subject called Extreme Ownership.  The premise of the book is quite simple:  Everything is your fault.  Be accountable.  Take ownership.  Take responsibility. From this responsibility you will find freedom” (148).  Do every job—even small tasks like making your bed—as duty demands.  “The mantra ‘If you are going to do it, you might as well be the best at it’ is repeated constantly.  We live by it” (p. 150).  SEAL officers encourage their men to follow the SLLS prescription:  Stop; Look; Listen; Smell.  Before charging into battle make sure everything’s right.  Stay still before acting.  Silently study and think before moving.  “Don’t overreact, don’t let your emotions drive your action, think before you act.  In other words, stop and count to ten.  Like your mom and dad taught you.  This is stillness in the Stoic sense” (p. 80).   

Following Crenshaw’s rehabilitation from his battlefield injuries, he studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, earning a master’s degree in Public Administration.  While there he encountered youngsters who were amazingly gifted and ambitious.  But few of them had a deep sense of duty—as was evident in their disregard for doing small things well.  “I was amazed by how few people actually showed up on time to class, for instance.  I was amazed how many people typed away on their laptops—sending iMessages, not taking notes—while the professor tried to lecture.  It struck me because it was so normalized in college culture.  This lack of politeness and lack of basic manners was the norm, not the exception.”   He “couldn’t help but think, ‘You are going straight into the job market after this.  Who on earth will hire you if you can’t show up on time?’” (p. 176).  Such youngsters would easily become “vocal members of the outrage mob” haunting the halls of Congress—or staging protests in the streets—because they had lived remarkably easy lives.  “Few places on earth are as sheltered, and accommodating, and insulated from adversity as an American college campus” (p. 193), which almost necessarily produces angry protesters and self-pitying victims.  

What these students lacked was anything resembling the SEALs’ Stoic ethos.  Reading the ancient Stoics (Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca) provides SEALs such as Crenshaw a philosophical perspective that’s invaluable for a warrior—and for a congressmen countering the angry, “woke,” outrage culture shredding the nation’s fabric.   This gives Fortitude a depth one rarely encounters in politicians’ electioneering boilerplates!  Concluding his treatise with a thoughtful analysis of American history and contemporary culture, Crenshaw says:  “I told you before about the SEAL Ethos.  Perhaps we now need an American Ethos.  Perhaps it goes something like this:  I will not quit in the face of danger or pain or self-doubt;  I will not justify the easier path before me.  I decide that all my actions, not just some, matter.  Every small task is a contribution toward a higher purpose.  Every day is undertaken with a sense of duty to be better than I was yesterday, even in the smallest of ways.  I seek out hardship.  I do not run from pain but embrace it, because I derive strength from my suffering.  I confront the inevitable trials of life with a smile.  I plan to keep my head, to be still, when chaos overwhelms me.  I will tell the story of my failures and hardships as a victor, not a victim.  I will be grateful.  Millions who have gone before me have suffered too much, fought too hard, and been blessed with far too little, for me to squander this life.  So I won’t.  My purpose will be to uphold and protect the spirit of our great republic, knowing that the values we hold dear can be preserved only by a strong people.  I will do my part. I will live with Fortitude” (p. 244).  Would there were more of his kind in Congress!  Would there were millions of us who would join him!

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Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church Dallas, provides us valuable insights for living with integrity in Courageous:  10 Strategies for Thriving in a Hostile World (Grand Rapids:  Baker Publishing Group, c. 2020).  The book’s ten chapters are no doubt re-worked sermons, filled with biblical texts and illuminating examples, woven together to make a unified text.  Living in the increasingly anti-Christian “enemy-occupied territory” C.S. Lewis described, we need to cultivate important facets of courage.  

First:  “Don’t panic.”  Accept the fact that life is difficult, filled with trials and temptations, challenging in various ways.  When facing unexpected challenges, only a few of us take action—fight or flight; 80 percent freeze and fail to do anything.  But with God’s Grace we can, like Joshua, rise to the challenge and act wisely and well, for “The LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”  We can own the words the LORD spoke to Joshua:  “Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed” (Joshua 1:9).  Next:  “Gain Situational Awareness.”  Courage is neither rash nor cowardly.  It requires thoughtful assessment of what’s actually happening and how one should  react, learning to see and call things as they truly are, not as they wish them to be” (p. 44).  Embrace the example of the sons of Issachar “who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do” (I Chron 12:32).  Third:  “Take Inventory.”  Be sure you are well-prepared, equipped with the “full armor of God” described by Paul in Ephesians.  Fourth:  “Develop a Victor, Not a Victim Mindset.”  In Christ, we’re called to overcome, not succumb, to the wiles of the devil!  Fifth, “Trust Your Training.”  Virtues get stronger,  Aristotle insisted,  as good habits are cultivated.  Live out the lessons you learned in Bible studies.  Sixth:  “Bend, Don’t Break.”  Seventh:  Beware of Celebrating the Summit.”  Even in apparent victories remember the war is never over.  Eighth:  ‘Learn from the Past.”  Learning from history and Scripture will fortify your soul and provide invaluable guidance.  Ninth:  “Help Others.”  Be a Barnabas.  Even if we must risk our lives (or fortunes or reputation) we must sacrificially seek to protect and care for others.  And, Tenth:  “Do the Next Right Thing.”  In accord with an ancient precept:  do all the good you can, where you can, while you can.  

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Several years ago a Canadian psychologist, Jordan B. Peterson, became something of an internet sensation for speaking out against some of the politically-correct corruptions of the academic world.  He seemed to especially attract young men who were looking for a model of wisdom and strength.  In part this is because he is not a typical academic but a man who has worked with and understands the hard-working people he grew up with in Fairview, Alberta—very much a frontier settlement 400 miles distant from the nearest city.  Peterson set forth his central ideas in 12 Rules for Life:  An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto:  Random House Canada, c. 2018).  Though hewing to an agnostic secular perspective, routinely invoking Darwinian biology to explain both animal and human behavior, he nevertheless finds a wealth of insight in various religious traditions.  So much he says is compatible with Christian philosophy.  This is especially evident when he repeatedly deals seriously with the reality of Original Sin and our need of discipline.

He begins by explaining why he sets down “rules.”  As is evident in Exodus, God gave Ten Commandments, not Suggestions!  So too Peterson insists there are in fact given rules to follow if we are to avoid both the internal and external chaos of contemporary life.  As humans we simply need a “shared cultural system” that prescribes a code wherein some behaviors are accepted as true and valuable, prescribing goals worth celebrating and pursuing.  We are furthermore called to live rightly—“to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.  We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world.  We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated” (p. 6).  So Peterson’s “12 Rules” prescribe ways to walk the straight and narrow way, avoiding soul-shrinking, soul-shredding chaos.  Therein one finds sufficient guidance to live the good life.  

“Rule 1:  STAND UP STRAIGHT WITH YOUR SHOULDERS BACK.”  He means this literally—attend to your posture!  Stand tall!  We’re  too often too easily defeated in life’s struggles, and when we cave in or lie down we slip into a dysfunctional state that easily begets depression and lethargy.  But if we do battle with the malevolent persons and powers we encounter we’ll become stronger.  Our nervous system will strengthen.  We’ll discover we’re braver than we feared.  We’ll discover we’re “not only a body” but “a spirit, so to speak— a psyche— as well.  Standing up physically also implies and invokes and demands standing up metaphysically.  Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being” (p. 41).  It means accepting the “terrible responsibility of life” as an adult, “accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood,” and “willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language)” (p. 42).

“Rule 2:  TREAT YOURSELF LIKE SOMEONE YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR HELPING.”  If you’re caring for a sick child you insist he follow the doctor’s prescriptions.  Ironically, adults are far less likely to follow the doctor’s orders for themselves!  If you’re a good parent you want your children to become independent, self-reliant persons, strong rather than safe.  But all too many adults fail to do so themselves!  If you’re a wise person you also recognize and respect the ancient, inescapable differences between men and women, clearly evident in men’s drive to establish order in their world—building houses and town, establishing hierarchies, serving as policemen and soldiers, risking their lives to defend what they hold precious.  So too:  “Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments” (p. 54). 

“Rule 3:  MAKE FRIENDS WITH PEOPLE WHO WANT THE BEST FOR YOU.”  After telling personal stories, showing why it’s important to terminate toxic friendships, Peterson insists endless loyalty to another person is never wise.  “Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement.  You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place.  Quite the opposite.  You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse.  It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you.  It’s appropriate and praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improved” (p. 105).

“Rule 4:  COMPARE YOURSELF TO WHO YOU WERE YESTERDAY, NOT TO WHO SOMEONE ELSE IS TODAY.”  No matter what you do there’s almost always someone better at it!  Rather than compare yourself with others seek to daily develop your own unique self in your own unique setting.  Ask yourself:  “‘What could I do, that I would do, to make Life a little better?’”  “Aim high.  Set your sights on the betterment of Being.  Align yourself, in your soul, with Truth and the Highest Good” (p. 136).  And that Highest Good, Peterson says, in found in the Bible and especially in the Sermon on the Mount! 

“Rule 5:  DO NOT LET YOUR CHILDREN DO ANYTHING THAT MAKES YOU DISLIKE THEM.”  Rather than pamper and develop “a little God-Emperor of the Universe,” seek to shape him into an admirable adult.  Unfortunately, Peterson thinks, today’s parents want to be loved, fear their kids, and aspire to be their friends.  They’re simply following the poor advice doled out by the “adolescent ethos of the 1960s, a decade whose excesses led to a general denigration of adulthood, an unthinking disbelief in the existence of competent power, and the inability to distinguish between the chaos of immaturity and responsible freedom” (p. 148).  But children need guidance, correction, discipline—and only parents can do this well.  “It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child” (p. 153).  Echoes of the much-maligned James Dobson!

“Rule 6:  SET YOUR HOUSE IN PERFECT ORDER BEFORE YOU CRITICIZE THE WORLD.”  Start small.  Do what’s possible for you right now where you are—going to work, caring for your children, treating others rightly, taking responsibility for things you can personally control.  Stop fretting about—and scheming to remedy—the ills of the world.  “Rule 7:  PURSUE WHAT IS MEANINGFUL (NOT WHAT IS EXPEDIENT).”  Most folks do what’s pleasurable, choosing to focus on transient goods rather than permanent things.  But momentary sacrifices to gain long-term goals is the only way to live wisely.  Deferred gratification is the key to happiness.  “Rule 8:  TELL THE TRUTH— OR, AT LEAST, DON’T LIE.”  Talk straight to yourself and to others.  Your well-being, and the welfare of your world, depend upon it.  Lying is particularly the province of the ideologues so prominent in politics and media, and “oversimplification and falsification is particularly typical of ideologues.  They adopt a single axiom:  government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad.  Then they filter and screen their experiences and insist ever more narrowly that everything can be explained by that axiom.  They believe, narcissistically, underneath all that bad theory, that the world could be put right, if only they held the controls” p. 258).    Truth-telling, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn found, is the only way to rests them.  

“Rule 9:  ASSUME THAT THE PERSON YOU ARE LISTENING TO MIGHT KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON’T.”  Have the humility to acknowledge your limits and forego trying to shape the world in accord with your personal notions.  Fresh, radical, novel, “creative” ideas—especially your own—are likely to be wrong!  Furthermore, know that thinking involves seriously listening to yourself!  “People think they think, but it’s not true.  It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking.  True thinking is rare— just like true listening.  Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult.” (p. 293).   “Rule 10:  BE PRECISE IN YOUR SPEECH.”  Words have meanings, so use them respectfully, thoughtfully.  There’s good reason for grammar, so learn to follow its prescriptions.  “Rule 11:  DO NOT BOTHER CHILDREN WHEN THEY ARE SKATEBOARDING.”  Kids (especially boys) need to take risks, to skirt with danger—it’s the best way for them to attain competence and maturity.  Let boys be boys—and resist every effort of the radical feminists to cram them into their skewed ideology.  (Peterson’s willingness to challenge feminist pieties is one reason he has such a large iTube male audience).  “Rule 12:  PET A CAT WHEN YOU ENCOUNTER ONE ON THE STREET.”  Find joy in the sheer goodness of creation.  Avoid the nihilistic impetus to despise and destroy the goodness in things.  

Summing up his central insights, Peterson says his studies led him to some “fundamental moral conclusions.  Aim up.  Pay attention.  Fix what you can fix.  Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge.  Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death.  Become aware of your own insufficiency— your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred.  Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world.  Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault.  Maybe it’s you.  You’ve failed to make the mark.  You’ve missed the target.  You’ve fallen short of the glory of God.  You’ve sinned.  And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world.  And, above all, don’t lie.  Don’t lie about anything, ever.  Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people” (p. 242).  Enough said!  So let’s shape up and live responsibly!