the smith’s virtue: perseverance

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The next virtue in ADF’s list is perseverance, what’s colloquially referred to as “sticktoitiveness.” It’s not a flashy virtue; it lacks the panache of courage, for example. As with so many terms, it has a Latin origin: “very serious” or “very strict.”

Perseverance is quite the killjoy, if you go by the etymology.

And it can be that way by nature. ADF defines it as “the motivation to pursue goals even when that pursuit becomes difficult.” It’s closely linked with endurance, from the Latin term “to make hard”: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, another old saw. To endure, you must suffer without yielding, carry through despite hardship. To endure also means “to continue to live” — perhaps a reflection of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, that suffering goes hand-in-hand with life.

Perseverance requires strictness, discipline, because it is hard — and it hardens you to the negative stimulus around you. We all want to succeed at the first try. Perseverance requires not only discipline, but a very pointed patience — and sheer will. Try, try again. And again. And again. Until your energy fails you, and then you still stagger up, brush off the dirt, and try and try and try,

Perseverance grits its teeth and swallows the grouses about folks who never seem to have to try. There’s no time to grouse — only time to work. It’s the virtue of the smith gods, Brighid and Goibhniu, as they pound, pound, pound the recalcitrant metal into the shape they wish. It takes innumerable strikes, innumerable beads of sweat, innumerable aches traveling down the arm, into the shoulder, into the core. Try, try again.

There’s another term for it: stubborn, one that’s been pinned on me since I was a toddler born under the sign of the Bull. Stubborn stubbornly comes from Middle English as itself, with no other etymological source; it simply means what it means, and that’s fitting. It’s set in purpose, unmoving despite of the force applied. It’s dogged — having the quality of a hound on a hunt, or the other end of that chewy tug-of-war toy, refusing to let you drop the game.

In our attention-deficit world, we shrug at perseverance. If we don’t get it at the first try, it’s not worth doing; we are shamed, and expect to be perfect at each moment. People who spend hours practicing are looked at askance, as if they’re secret spies from China.

Perhaps this is what I like most about perseverance: it begins where you are, that deeply imperfect self that always needs to try. It speaks to people for whom things have never come easily — people like me.

What is virtuous about perseverance, endurance, doggedness? Granted, it can be used for ill ends — think of a hit man, for example. But those noodles who seem to get everything right at first shot aside, perseverance is necessary. Nothing gets accomplished, learned or created without it. You’ll never excel in your classes if you can’t stick to your study times, and keep escaping into Facebook at the first available moment. You’ll never finish that painting if you’re distracted by the thousand things that plague every wandering mind.

Or run five miles. Or meditate. Or, or, or. You can follow it with any goal. Perseverance — discipline, endurance, sheer stubbornness — is what gets you through. Its rune is uruz, the auroch or ox. Its ogham is dair, the oak that is also the door. Both rely on strength — in this case, primarily that of will, which is the means through which perseverance manifests.

And yes, life brings a great deal of suffering and obstacles your way. So to endure, to persevere, is to live: to become strong and, to a certain degree, hardened to the darts of hail, the cold and the heat, to keep plodding your way on the Red Road of Life, the way that fate has set down for you.


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