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CCE Corner – Practicing Perseverance

November 19th, 2020 by Becca Tellinghuisen

Our previous Classical Christian Education Corner took a historical/philosophical look at the virtue of perseverance. In the Christian tradition, one of the ways we become the new creations God intends and show our love for Him and others is by being diligent in our tasks. Perseverance has more recently become a hot topic in academic and popular psychology, with a different emphasis than the Christian version. U Penn psychology professor Angela Duckworth may be credited with some of the excitement. Duckworth was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and has a TED talk on the concept of “grit.” She defines grit as the ability to stick to long-term goals and the ability to keep going despite adversity. Her research has led her to conclude that grit, or we could call it perseverance, is more important in determining achievement than intelligence, talent, quality of instruction, family life, or income. Whether we are inclined to frame this virtue in the context of the demands of love or the desire for achievement, or both, we are still left with the question: How do we get better at persevering?

The classical answer is, of course, practice. This may seem less than helpful when you find yourself tempted to give up on something—it’s a little like someone just saying “Don’t give up” or “Persevere in persevering.” If we think about the problem from a few different angles, however, we may come up with some ideas to help put perseverance into practice.

Take the long view

What goals do you have? What goals should you have? Reminding yourself of those goals can provide a needed perspective for the task at hand. Goals can be big and small and anywhere in between. For Christians, communion with God and others has always been our highest goal; it’s what we were designed for. While we may have that end in common, we are each called to different situations in life and different corresponding goals—educational, professional, communal, personal. Goals can act as a “light at the end of the tunnel” when things get tough. When you are struggling to find the motivation to do what you’re supposed to, call to mind the place you are heading. The long view can also help when you have to get through something that is not ordered toward a goal. It can sometimes help to remember the temporary nature of most struggles, in other words, “this too shall pass.”

Mark out the steps to get there

Goals are not really helpful if you do not know how to reach them, so figuring out what steps it will take to reach your goals is important. It’s also good to take some time on your own or as a family to evaluate how you are spending your time. Are you actually working toward the goals you thought you were?

Take the next right step

Even if you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, or it just looks very, very far away, there is usually enough light to know what needs to be done now. I don’t often find myself quoting Disney films, but Frozen II has a song titled “The Next Right Thing.” The song lyrics encourage us when we are lost or uncertain, or we could add, lacking motivation or distracted, to “do the next right thing.” Sometimes you need to just take the next right step, no matter how small. In doing so, you may find the momentum needed to keep going.

Cross-train

Setting goals and taking the steps to achieve them in one area can help cultivate perseverance in other areas. Medieval monks engaged in manual labor as a way of building spiritual fortitude. Things like household chores and music lessons can still provide fertile training ground. One additional benefit about cross-training is that diligence in a preferred task (e.g., soccer) can carry over into non-preferred tasks (e.g., homework in a less-liked subject). Think of continuing along with the next small steps and cross training as strengthening the “perseverance muscles” for more challenging situations.

Look for the good

In her study of early Christian writers mentioned in our previous CCEC, Professor Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung quotes some insightful descriptions of the temptation monks faced to shirk their duties. I could picture my children or myself, like the monks, distractedly looking out the window at the sun moving “slowly or not at all,” the day seeming “to be fifty hours long” discontent to be where we are, “slothful and immobile in the face of all the work to be done” wishing to be someplace else doing something else. One response to such temptation is to look for the good in your present circumstances. St. Paul knew the dangers of a negative attitude and instructed the Philippians to “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.”

Ask a simple question

Asking the following question can help if you are resisting taking the next right step, cannot see any good in it, or are uncertain about what that step is: “Given my role here, what should I be doing?” Roles come with whole sets of obligations and privileges, and while we may argue about some of them, many are quite clear. Asking “What should I be doing as a child/sibling/parent, husband/wife, student/teacher, pastor/parishioner, employee/employer, citizen/elected official” should provide you with a number of immediate answers in most situations. They may not always be the answers you want, but they are likely the answers to what you should do.

Take care of your body and each other

We tend to think of perseverance as purely an act of the will, as mind over matter, but the fact is we are embodied creatures. It is difficult to persevere, even in a non-physical task, perhaps especially in a non-physical task, if you are tired or hungry or have not had enough exercise and fresh air. We are also made to live in community. We can do more with the help of others than we can on our own. Find role models of perseverance. Hold each other accountable to reach a goal. Encourage one another even in the smallest of steps.

We encourage you to spend the quarter exploring these ideas on your own and together as a family. We will be doing the same at school. We would also like to remind you that a Home Connection sheet was sent home with additional ideas for putting perseverance into practice; it can also be found here.