A few months back I offered some thoughts on courage. Tonight I’ve decided to take a look at perseverance. How many people give up when the road gets too long or doubts overwhelm us? On a personal level I wonder how often I have failed, not because of a lack of talent, but because of the inability to persevere? No success story ever occurred without perseverance. Hopefully this essay serves as a reminder of the necessity to battle on even when hope is obscured.
Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know of several thousand things that won’t work.
-Thomas Edison (1)
We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step in a longer and even more difficult road…
-Nelson Mandela (2)
If one has not been a ronin at least seven times, he will not be a true retainer. Seven times down, eight times up.
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (3)
Badlands!You gotta live ‘em every day. Let the broken hearts stand as the price you gotta pay! Keep pushin’ till it’s understood And these badlands start treatin’ us good.
-Bruce Springsteen from the song “Badlands” (4)
- One of the unfortunate mindsets I see students (and, sadly, adults) adopt is the idea that people from different places, times, and cultures can’t share much in common. Humanity, when we allow it, overrides many barriers. What commonalities do we see in the message from the 19th century inventor (Edison) and the 20th-21st century songwriter (Springsteen)?
- It may be difficult to picture a 17th century samurai at a rock concert, but what message is Springsteen communicating that Tsunetomo would agree with?
- How do the quotes on perseverance provide support to the virtue of courage?
- Can you recall a time when you lived Tsunetomo’s quote? What emotions and thoughts do you have looking back on this chapter of your life? What was the source of your ability to persevere?
- Read the following passage spoken by the character Samwise Gamgee in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Does it strike you in a personal way or merely as a(n) interesting, good, etc message?
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But, in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances to turn back, but they didn’t. They kept goin’.
If courage does guarantee other qualities, it can only do so with a healthy dose of perseverance. Many of life’s challenges take more than raw courage to overcome. Courage may start you on a journey, but the willingness…the ability…to persevere keeps us going. Few of the meaningful challenges of life are easily overcome. Some struggles last for years. We fight the good fight and we fall, because we are human and have all the weaknesses that accompany that condition. But when you fall, and fear threatens to overwhelm you, do you stay down? Do you convince yourself that you have gone far enough because some progress has been made? This is not to say that when you fall along a journey you have to jump up and move forward with frantic energy, ignoring the pain of failing. To pause to lick one’s wounds is not the same as giving up. To attend to the damage done by the hardships of life is necessary for few injuries heal without attention. Still, if you can persevere you may find yourself capable of looking back on the trips and stumbles of your life with a sense of humor as Thomas Edison did, laughing about the numerous ways you learned how not to do things.
When in the middle of a difficult time, however, we often don’t feel like laughing or we, perhaps, we aren’t tuned in to the humor of life. The weight we carry seems unbearable and taking just one more step seems beyond our scope. At times like this the words of the Roman philosopher, dramatist and statesman Seneca strike us like truth, “For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live” (5). Courage exists, even when we don’t see it clearly. Courage fuels our persevere, propelling us forward. My mind, yet again, turns to Frederick Douglass, his life a greater lesson than even his profound words.
An Amazing Journey
Douglass was born a slave in 1818. He escaped slavery in 1838, but that victory was only the beginning of his life’s story. By the time of his death he had become one of the most prominent men in America. He became publisher of various newspapers, including The North Star. He not only focused on slavery, but on woman’s rights as well. He published his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845. His writing and lecturing skills made him one of the most effective abolitionists of his day. These talents made his a sought after lecturer in Europe as well as in the Northern section on the United States. When the Civil War began he found himself in correspondence with president Lincoln. When Lincoln was afraid he would not be re-elected he sought Douglass’ council on an important issue – how to make the Emancipation Proclamation permanent enough to survive him losing the presidency. The point became moot when Lincoln won, but it offers clarity to the fact that Lincoln admired Douglass. As Douglass’ life progressed he became involved in freedman’s rights, became ambassador to Haiti, and spoke in favor of Irish home rule. Advocate, publisher, writer, lecturer, statesman and humanitarian. Many a title can be attributed to Fredrick Douglass, but that is not the key to appreciating this great man.
To look at all Douglass accomplished is impressive in and of itself. To gaze upon these deeds with the backdrop of his first twenty years is all the more inspiring. Born a slave he started his life in the most crushing of situations. No chance for an education. The structures of society, both in the North and South, creating obstacles the like no one in America faces today. Yet he struggled and persevered. Could he have possibly have known what he would one day accomplish while he was sneaking towards freedom? Was the ambassadorship to Haiti in his mind? The correspondence with a President? Douglass did not know what he would one day become. He just knew, as did hundreds of other runaway slaves, what he did not want to be anymore. It is impossible to know what can happen when we forget to quit, when we forget to give in to our fears.
Of Fears and Failure (and perseverance)
But fears can be powerful adversaries, ones that cause us to cease our efforts. They creep into our minds, especially when we realize just how hard some of our goals are to accomplish. We fall. We fail. We say or do the wrong thing at the most unfortunate moment. We wonder, are our efforts worth all this frustration? Bruce Springsteen shouts to us that it is. His song Badlands is an anthem to perseverance. It’ll be hard to move forward, sometimes the effort will, as he points out, break our hearts. His advice is to “keep pushin’” because someday the tides will turn.
As Samwise spoke so wisely, “Even darkness must pass. A new day will come.” These words are insightful. The use of the word “even” communicates the fact that, to many of us, it feels as if bad times will never end. This despair can be powerful, but “even darkness must pass”. You don’t know what your efforts will bring, but standing still leaves you where you are. We must take some responsibility for the coming of Samwise’s “new day.”
Positive thinking alone would not have enabled the two hobbits to reach the heart of Mount Doom. They had to move forward, to persevere through the difficult journey that they took up due to their courage. Their fictional struggles reflect the real world wisdom of Fredrick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning” (6).
Granted (and thankfully) most of us will not have to struggle for our physical freedom, but our personal struggles can never end in success if we are not willing to work (“plowing up the ground”) or endure frightful elements of a struggle (“thunder and lightning”). Be brave and persevere, my friends. You don’t actually know where it will take you.
Character Challenge: Find a goal you have, but gave up on. Did you give up because you lost interest? If this is truly the case, mind you, you ought to feel good about your decision. I contemplated switching majors in college, but upon evaluating the change did not. The main motivator in my decision not to change was my interest in history. However, some goals we actually want but quit because we deem them too difficult. These are the focus point of this challenge. For younger people: do you wish you made the honor roll but decided the work was too much? Was making varsity too intimidating so you stopped working out because it “didn’t matter anyway?” For adults: still thinking about a new degree? A new job? Write down the goal and the excuses you use to justify not chasing it. Are they impossible to overcome or just daunting? Can you accept, now that you are looking at your words, not pursuing this goal? Make a decision and good luck.
(1) Meadowcroft, William H. The Boy’s Life of Edison. (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1911), p 301.
(2) Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. (New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 2000), p. 460.
(3) Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Hagakure. (New York, Kodansha International, 1979), p 54. Translated by William Scott Wilson.
(4) Springsteen, B. (1978). Badlands. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records.
(5) Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (Letter 78). This letter can be found at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_78
(6)Frederick Douglass (1857). “West India Emancipation” speech can be found at http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress