The Mighty Logo

The Virtue I See Most in People With Chronic Illness

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Fortitude [noun]. Courage in pain or adversity. “She endured her illness with great fortitude.”

Courage [noun]. The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery. “She called on all her courage to face the ordeal.” Strength in the face of pain or grief. “He fought his illness with great courage.”

When I think of courage, the image that springs to mind is of a soldier on a battlefield facing a great fear and great danger, but the Oxford English dictionary paints a different picture, as seen in the definitions above. All of us have things that frighten us, and that dictionary specifically calls out pain and illness as two examples. What first comes to mind when I think of fortitude is a big, one-time heroic act, but I can’t forget about the heroism of the mundane.

I first learned about the heroism of the mundane when reading Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas as he describes the various virtues. Building on Aristotle’s work, Aquinas identifies fortitude as a major virtue for everyone, and goes as far as to say “the principal act of fortitude is endurance, that is to stand immovable in the midst of dangers.”

Whether or not you have a chronic illness, this is probably the primary way you exercise fortitude (unless you find yourself directly in harm’s way). It often isn’t flashy, it probably won’t draw attention to itself and you’re probably not going to win any awards for it. Yet, we can’t discount it or gloss over it, it still is the principal act of fortitude. You are exercising great heroism, whether you know it or not, whether you feel like you are or not.

Everyone has many chances daily to live out the heroism of the mundane, but if you have a chronic illness or care for someone who does, you may have even more chances and even more difficulties to endure with courage. Maybe it’s a frustrating journey to try to get a diagnosis, with doctors saying, “your tests look normal,” yet your symptoms are still there and no one knows why. Maybe it’s grappling with the emotional weight of a diagnosis that can’t be cured, such as a genetic condition. Maybe it’s when people in your life don’t understand what you’re going through, even if they want to support you in it. These are real challenges, real dangers, real fears. You don’t have to live in a war zone to find chances to use the virtue of fortitude.

I’ve heard it said a chronic illness packs an emotional punch, hitting you hard with real fear and real uncertainty about the future. Fortitude is precisely the virtue that helps us not be mastered by fear, but “ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.” The difficulties in your life are real and hard. You can choose to see the fear, to recognize it and to not let it completely control you.

(You obviously shouldn’t be rash or foolhardy and completely ignore fear, that would not be fortitude; if you have particular dietary restrictions or limits on your activity or any other healthy boundaries, fortitude would insist that you follow those.)

The nice thing about virtues is they are habits: The more you practice them, the easier they become. The more you practice a particular choice, the stronger that neural pathway in your brain becomes. As you begin to consciously grow in a virtue, it’s likely going to be really hard at first. It won’t come as naturally because you haven’t practiced it much, which is true of any skill you’ve ever learned in your entire life. Think about a baby first learning to walk. They aren’t very good at it, but then get better and better. Virtues are the same way.

When it’s the same thing day-in and day-out, some days you’re feeling better, other days you’re feeling worse, progress is slow — it’s hard to maintain your fortitude for the long haul. Your daily life can seem so simple and so ordinary, yet so challenging at the same time. Don’t forget you are exercising great heroism as you endure the challenges and the annoyances and hardships, big and small. If your life was a video game, you’re playing on a higher difficulty setting.

Endurance is the principal act of fortitude, and you have much to endure in your daily life. Don’t ever forget you have many opportunities each day to grow in fortitude, to put fear in its proper place, to fight a combat different from the soldier on the battlefield, yet a combat just the same.

The more you practice over time, it becomes easier to make that choice and it becomes more automatic. If you have a chronic illness, the heroism of the mundane is the virtue for you.

Unsplash image by Steve Halama

Originally published: June 12, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home