Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
… Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace …
The serenity prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, broadens the definition of courage as defined by Peterson’s Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV, 2004). For Niebuhr, the virtue of courage includes the strength of endurance — the way people respond to things they cannot change.
Endurance is the side of courage that faces hardship with serenity and acceptance. Endurance can be duty faithfully shouldered. It can be pain or disablement patiently borne. It can be acceptance of persecution without loss of self. Endurance and acceptance can take as much courage as facing opposition included under the strength Bravery.
In CSV (p. 199), the historical prototype of Bravery is the physical valor shown by warriors on the battlefield. But what about the courage of widows and orphans who remake lives following the loss of husbands and fathers on the battlefield? What about families that welcome back disabled veterans of the battlefield and make new lives around them? What about Penelope who endured year after year of uncertainty waiting for Odysseus to return from Troy? A counterbalancing strength is needed to account for these long-suffering, ongoing, and less dramatic forms of courage.
Adding endurance and its analogs — such as serenity, patience, and acceptance — to the strengths of Courage broadens and balances the virtue. Endurance, like Bravery, means finding the expert mean between deficit and excess. A person with a deficit of Endurance feels victimized by the smallest inconvenience or pain. A person with an excess is stoic to the point of failing to change what can be changed or being victimized unnecessarily by others.
Evaluation against the criteria for strengths:
Ubiquity: The ubiquity of endurance as a strength is suggested by the breadth of references to it from around the world and across time, from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Judaic, and Moslem religious writings, as well as secular texts ranging in time from the Greeks to the present. Samples of references to the strength of endurance are included in an accompanying post in my personal blog.CRITERION 1 Fulfilling: Endurance is fulfilling. We each have our share of suffering in one form or another, as in Job (5:7), “For man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upwards.” How we face the trouble that comes to us determines the tenor of our existences. Serenity and endurance do not serve as an escape from reality, but instead serve as a foundation for tackling reality with clarity.
CRITERION 2 Morally valued: We are elevated when we hear that people face hardship with grace. We admire people who perform hard duties without complaint. When we see parents caring lovingly for children with chronic diseases, particularly children so compromised that they will never be independent, we feel awe, and we wonder whether we could do one tenth as well.
CRITERION 3 Does not diminish others: Serene endurance increases the calm and acceptance of people around us. People observing graceful endurance are often led to look at their own suffering differently, perhaps seeing a different way to cope with it. Victor Frankl tells a story of a man in the concentration camp who endured by maintaining a faith that this suffering and death were meaningful and that the people in the camp would not die for nothing. His endurance gave others hope.
CRITERION 4 Nonfelicitous opposite: Active opposites are agitation, anxiety, and impatience. Passive opposites are avoidance and giving up. None of these are felicitous.
CRITERION 5 Traitlike: Endurance characterizes the way a person responds to hardship over time and in many situations. In fact, Endurance is probably more traitlike than Bravery since it is phasic (ongoing) rather than tonic (response to a particular demand).
CRITERION 6 Distinctiveness: I expect people may believe that this strength is subsumed under Bravery, whose definition includes “facing a terminal illness with equanimity. “ The difference between them is that Bravery involves a point of accomplishment at the terminus of the illness, whereas Endurance is ongoing with no foreseeable end. Bravery is action-oriented and tonic. Endurance is courage without action and phasic. Other strengths can support Endurance. For example, Spirituality often provides faith in goodness and belief in one’s purpose in life. With Humility, one understands not being exempt from pain. Humor helps some people endure pain. But each of these can be exercised without Endurance.
CRITERION 7 Paragons: Many paragons of endurance are not so recognized at the time. But some are — Victor Frankl, the Dalai Lama, and Horton in the Dr. Seuss stories. Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning based on his endurance of concentration camp life, “Everything can be taken from a man but …the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (p. 104). The Dalai Lama responded to exile and destruction of his home thus, “Hatred will not cease by hatred, but by love alone. This is the ancient law.” (BBC, n.d.). Horton hatched the egg of Mayzie the lazy bird, enduring storm, ridicule, and capture, averring, “”I meant what I said And I said what I meant …An elephant’s faithful. One hundred per cent!”
CRITERION 8 Prodigies: I have known three young adults, one now dead, who have endured muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and Friedrich’s Ataxia respectively. One recently found that he could build friendships with peers through computer gaming, the first time in fifteen years that he had been able to interact with peers without close adult supervision. One attended school, where other students came to love him, even though he could not sit unaided, talk, or read. But he could smile. Another went from staggering gait to cane to walker to wheel chair as he completed high school and went off to college, figuring out ingenious ways to cope with his physical losses.
CRITERION 9 Selective absence: There are people who can endure no pain or that believe that they deserve to be spared from all suffering. There are complainers who do not accept their lot in life, but take no constructive steps, believing that they are entitled to better.CRITERION 10 Institutions and Rituals: Some cultures have rituals for increasing physical endurance, such as the Spartan and Samurai training. Other cultures encourage people to capture sorrow in poetry, like the mother who imagines her dead child absent on his wonted chase after the dragonflies and hums ((Nitob, 1904).
“How far to-day in chase, I wonder,
Has gone my hunter of the dragon-fly!”
Cultures based on respect for elders encourage young people to observe and admire serenity and acceptance of reality.
Endurance, acceptance, and serenity comprise a strength that enables one to face life’s sufferings with grace and to inspire others to do so as well. QED
I have a number of references illustrating the existence of Endurance as a valued strength in various cultures at various times. Because they make this article too long, I’ve included them in a posting in my blog, to which you are cordially invited. I’ve also included there a poem by David Wagoner that exemplifies the retiring nature of Endurance.
CSV (2004). I used this as shorthand for Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.
Niebuhr, Reinhold, attributed (n.d). Serenity Prayer. The origin of this prayer is not entirely clear, as described in A Brief History of the Serenity Prayer. Retrieved 3 March 2006 from http://open-mind.org/Serenity.htm
Nitob, Inazo (1904). Bushido, the Soul of Japan.
Dr. Seuss (1940). Horton Hatches the Egg (Classic Seuss). Random House books for young readers.