It feels like the world is falling apart. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and massacres clog the headlines. Even El Capitan recently crumbled.
Of course, the rocks have always been falling. Each new hurricane and earthquake is a reminder of our fragile place on this spinning globe. Each new outburst of cruelty is a reminder of the human capacity for evil.
We cannot give up hope. But dark times need fortitude more than fantasy. Fortitude is grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of the world. This old-fashioned virtue has other names: grit, resilience, tenacity, and courage. Fortitude helps us face danger and endure stress. It gives us the energy and audacity to confront adversity.
Fortitude is solid and realistic, while hope is insubstantial and ethereal. The hopeful live in a world of “maybe.” Maybe after this hurricane season, we’ll take climate change seriously. Maybe after Vegas, we’ll take gun control seriously. Maybe next time, we’ll do things differently.
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Fortitude is grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of the world.
It is possible that things will improve. But they won’t improve without hard work and common sense. Unrealistic hope is delusional. And hope without labor is merely hot air.
Reality is immune to our desires. Death and suffering are as pervasive as ignorance and selfishness. We need to accept the inevitable and focus on things that are actually in our control. We can regulate our efforts and subdue our fears. Beyond that lies fortune and fate.
Moderate fatalism is not a recipe for despair. Despair dwells in the negative and broods over misery. The risk of hope is that it gives way to despair when the hoped-for dream does not arrive.
The truth is that things are mixed. The earth is not static. Evil people exist. But so too do heroes, mothers and martyrs. Right now someone is dying; but someone else is being born. Someone is lonely; but someone else is falling in love. This vast world contains a multitude.
Reality includes hurricanes and earthquakes. It also includes tranquility, beauty and joy. We ought not let outrage and anxiety destroy our enjoyment of life’s bounty.
Our spirits will break if we try to take in all of the suffering of the world. This does not mean that we can ignore other people’s pain. But it does mean that compassion is a finite good. Help the victims if you can. But understand that grief and sorrow are local affairs.
Recent tragedies seem overwhelming. But there is always bad news somewhere. The media magnifies calamity. Catastrophes attract our attention.
It is wise to control your consumption of news. If the news is bothering you, turn it off. If you want good news and inspiration, look for it. Common decency is the unexceptional background condition of normal life. Talk to a neighbor. Or call an old friend. Most people are doing OK most of the time.
The ancient Greeks taught that evil can be endured and that good is easily obtained. They advocated moderation and courage. The Christians added faith, hope and love. It is sometimes useful to “let go and let God.” But grit and determination remain important. Fortitude was celebrated by Aquinas and others in the Christian tradition.
It is wise to control your consumption of news. If the news is bothering you, turn it off.
Fortitude requires vigilance and prudence. It is prudent to prepare for disaster. But vigilance is not fear. Courage depends upon a sense of proportion that prevents panic. With preparation, some ills can be avoided. And many evils can be endured with patient resolve.
A sense of proportion puts anxiety in its place. The world continues to hum along after each quake, storm, and massacre. This bigger picture provides a source of hope. It is true that this too shall pass.
The big picture also makes us humble and forgiving. El Capitan crumbles on occasion. So too does the strongest man. We are all vulnerable. Our common fragility is the source of solidarity.
Share your strength when you can. But be modest about compassion. No one is strong enough to shoulder all of the suffering of the world.
In the end it is our resilience that is the source of progress. It is what we do after a disaster that actualizes hope. Comfort the afflicted. Lick your wounds. Admit your fears. Wipe away your tears. And then get back to work.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala