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Posted March 21, 2011

Three qualities of courage and their opposites

Taken from The Promise of Virtue by Eugene Hemrick
Ave Maria Press. Notre Dame, IN

In his book The First Circle, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gives us an excellent example of three of courage’s best qualities: patience, persistence, and endurance. When we look at the direct opposites of these qualities, they present us with three of courage’s most formidable foes.

The First Circle portrays life in a Russian gulag. During conversation between prisoners Sologdin and Nerzhin, Sologdin explains the Rule of the Final Inch to Nerzhin.

“And now listen to The Rule of the Final Inch! In the Language of Maximum Clarity it is immediately clear what that is. The work has been almost completed, the goal almost attained, everything seems completely right and the difficulties overcome. But the quality of the thing is not quite right. Finishing touches are needed, maybe still more research. In that moment of fatigue and self-satisfaction it is especially tempting to leave the work without having attained the apex of quality. Work in the area of the Final Inch is very, very complex and also especially valuable, because it is executed by the most perfected means. In fact, the rule of the Final Inch consists in this: not to shirk this crucial work. Not to postpone it, for the thoughts of the person performing the task will then stray form the realm of the Final Inch. And not to mind the time spent on it, knowing that one’s purpose lies not in completing things faster but in the attainment of perfection.”

Note how the person who is trying to achieve the final inch has a prototype in his or her mind — an image of quality, goodness, and order that he or she wants brought to perfection. Note the need for patience, persistence, and endurance and note their foes as well, the temptation to procrastinate, to be impatient, and to quit. These three foes stifle the “strong activity of the soul” that courage requires.

Procrastination is coy. It quietly whispers, “You are tired now, rest. The work can wait, leave it for tomorrow.” But perhaps we experience a momentary inspiration to make amends with others. Tomorrow our dispositions may change, or we won’t be able to contact them. It is here that courage counters procrastination by coaching us to act promptly on inspirations that have a good as their end.

Procrastination is also craftily used by those who fear courage. How many times have we seen courageous people who sense the immediacy of an urgent issue discouraged by the words, “Let’s not rush into this. Let it rest until another day,” or, “This needs a committee to further study it.” But it may be that the energies of the moment are high and the time is now for tackling the issue. Here courage would command us to hold firm against the timid and not to put off until tomorrow the urgent matters of today.

Impatience is a second foe of courage. It causes us to lose our cheerfulness and serenity in the midst of trying circumstances. It shouts, “You have a right to show your anger. Let it all hang out! You don’t have to put up with this.” Or it might say to us, “Protect yourself from wearing too thin. You can’t push yourself another inch.” In trying moments like this, courage counters with the admonition, “Don’t let impatience break your spirit to the point you lose your composure! Use your head, pace yourself, keep steadfast, and remember the advice of the scriptures: ‘through patience a person possesses his or her soul.”

Quitting, or giving up, is the third foe to courage. When we are faced with stiff opposition, it tempts us to say, “Who needs this? I’ll show them by leaving.” It is closely allied with self-pity in which we tell ourselves that no one appreciates us. Quitting whispers, “Give up because you no longer have anything to give.” But courage counters, “Is quitting really the answer? Aren’t you running away? Are you willing to concede that you can’t stand up and stand firm anymore? Remember what Pogo once said, “I have met the enemy and it is us.” People don’t make you quit, you quit. Have you really exhausted the Rule of the Final Inch and taxed your ability’s limits in resolving your frustration.

When we reflect on these three foes to courage, they give us an insight into what most probably dampened the courageous spirit that followed Vatican II, or for that matter, any courageous spirit. Some people start out championing a cause, but like the seed that fell upon rock, their ideas of the good they are pursuing is not well grounded. When things begin to go wrong, their courage withers quickly for lack of a clearly defined purpose. Some people let their patience become worn thin by neglecting to renew their ideals to find new, energizing reasons for holding steadfast to them. Some people succumb to procrastination because they haven’t made an issue a strong enough good for which to sacrifice. And then there are some who quit out of frustration because they haven’t followed the Rule of the Final Inch. Convinced there is no more alternatives to consider, they give up on finding new possibilities for obtaining perfection.