Finding Fortitude: Understanding the Strength Necessary to Grow Up & Grow Old

Nov 4, 2022

“I had a long conversation with an old friend recently about ageing and the passing of time. We have known each other 25 years and enjoy the shorthand that decades allow. We covered a lot of ground: the fractures in the world, books, our gardens. He told me he had had a stark reminder that he was getting older because of a moment – you may recognise the one – when something truly terrible happens and you look around for an available adult, the elder who is meant to know exactly what to do in a moment of crisis, and you realise that this person is, in fact, you.”

The above is an extract from a column in House and Garden, the award-winning British magazine about interior design and decoration. It was written by Sophie Dahl, a former model (with a famous name) turned writer, broadcaster and talented cook who also happens to be refreshingly self-aware.

The Search for Self-Definition

We all look for moments of self-definition in our lives. The recognition that it is me – my history, my accumulated experience, my capacity in maturity to keep my head when everyone else is losing theirs – is self-defining in a way few other experiences are.

Loss and grief – both moments of crisis – are a pair of linked feelings that typically precipitate a trauma in our lives as we age. Both can be understood therapeutically by, for example, trained professionals. Such professionals might be those working with an organisation like the Canadian Mental Health Association who explain:

“Loss is a part of life. It comes in many forms, and everyone reacts differently. Living with loss can be hard, especially in the beginning. Some types of loss include:

  • death of a loved one
  • death of a pet
  • loss of family life as you’ve known it; for example, a separation or divorce of parents
  • loss of an intimate relationship, such as a break-up with a partner
  • loss of relationships with friends or family, perhaps because they move away
  • loss of health and the ability to do things as usual

Any meaningful loss requires us to cope and imagine a new, changed future. Even when the change is positive, like moving away to start college, it can be hard at first to leave the familiar behind and embrace a new start. Grief is both a feeling and a process that people typically go through after a death or other significant loss.”

While helpful and clarifying, the therapeutic approach doesn’t quite resolve what it takes to handle extreme loss and grief. The above list of bullet points sounds more like a series of precipitating incidents that give rise to loss and grief, rather than advice about how best to confront and deal with them.

Researching further and using such expressions as “coming to terms with adversity” as a Google guide, we turned up the idea of “fortitude” – and it helped. Enormously.

The Meaning of Fortitude

Fortitude – which means courage in the face of adversity – is a word that sounds quaintly old-fashioned these days. The word has a Latin root, stemming from fortitudo meaning strength, force and firmness of mind and character.

One of the four cardinal virtues (the others are prudence, justice and temperance) fortitude does not require a religious conviction to be deployed successfully. It can be practised by anyone.

According to the online platform Learn Religions, “St. Thomas Aquinas ranked fortitude as the third of the cardinal virtues because it serves the higher virtues of prudence and justice. Fortitude is the virtue that allows us to overcome fear and to remain steady in our will in the face of all obstacles, physical and spiritual. Prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.”

Poise Under Pressure

Like virtually every aspect of behaviour, fortitude is not something that we can buy in a shop. It’s not an off-the-peg solution, but an aspect of character that – if we were lucky – we learned from our parents or our mentors when growing up.

Most of us, but not all, saw them handle life’s challenges with a reasonable degree of resilience and sang-froid and resolved to emulate their example. If they could exhibit poise under pressure, so could we. And, for the most part, we do just that.

Read More About It

There’s a considerable wealth of literature out there dealing with various aspects of personal resiliency, for those of you who wish to explore the issue in more detail.

The British newspaper The Guardian published a piece on the issue recently, which identified Generation Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 – who have been labelled the least resilient generation ever seen.

Too sensitive, too easily offended, lacking inner toughness are just a few of the standard charges levelled against Gen Z, which are diverting for members of an older generation to read about even though they may not – on closer inspection – be entirely true. (After all, hasn’t every generation had a unique set of criticisms and accusations thrown at them?)

Another source is a book entitled Fortitude: Unlocking the Secrets of Inner Strength, by Bruce Daisley. While it’s a book about work, it contains invaluable insights about how to handle many of life’s existential setbacks. It’s well worth reading, especially given the way our present day world is going.



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