On penance, self-denial and heroism

Francis Paget says somewhere in The Spirit of Discipline — ironically, I’m not disciplined enough to take the time to page through and find the quote — that if you want to make sure you will act heroically when it’s called for, you need to develop the habit of acting heroically when it’s not.

When men are under the gun, they do what they are habituated to do. Thus, if you have the habit of giving in to your petty desires, then when confronted with a major temptation, you are liable to give in to that as well.

Or, say you are confronted with an opportunity to sacrifice your life for another’s, will you do it? If you have the habit of sacrificing your life in small things, you will be more ready to sacrifice it in big ones.

To develop the habit of heroism, to make sure that when the chips are down you will act like a hero, and not a scrub, you have to develop the habit of heroism in small matters of self-denial and sacrifice. Do you like to think of yourself as a big, strong man (speaking to myself here), but can’t even control your own tongue or your petty irritations? Do you hope you’ll be a hero when it counts, but aren’t even heroic enough to give up your Saturday afternoon or your Tuesday evening after work, to take your wife shopping? Can you not even let someone go ahead of you on the road without honking and cussing?

If you can’t give up little things like your right to your time or to the right of way, or the urge to express how you feel — how will you give up your life or your safety for the sake of others, when called upon to do so?

After saying all this, I couldn’t well justify refusing to look up the quote, so here it is:

There is something in the very name of Fortitude which speaks to the almost indelible love of heroism in men’s hearts; but perhaps the truest Fortitude may often be a less heroic, a more tame and business-like affair than we are apt to think. It may be exercised chiefly in doing very little things, whose whole value lies in this, that, if one did not hope in God, one would not do them; in secretly dispelling moods which one would like to show; in saying nothing about one’s lesser troubles and vexations; in seeing whether it may not be best to bear a burden before one tries to see whither one can shift it; in refusing for one’s self excuses which one would not refuse for others. These, anyhow, are ways in which a man may every day be strengthening himself in the discipline of Fortitude; and then, if greater things are asked of him, he is not very likely to draw back from them.

Francis Paget, The Spirit of Discipline, London:Longmans 1902, p. 48.   The theme is elaborated on in the chapter titled “Drudgery and Heroism”.

(This is also offered as yet another remedy for accidie, discussed here and here.)

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