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Sapientia et Doctrina: The Three Virtues of Hard Work


Margaret O’Brien Steinfels
Co-Director, Fordham Center on Religion and Culture

(excerpted from keynote remarks given at the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society reception and induction ceremony on March 7)

steinfelsWe can never have too many inspiring people like all of you. Multi-taskers at work on many projects in many places: home, family, office, church, neighborhood, school, clubs. Your presence here tonight attests that your hard work and high achievement at Fordham warrant this recognition by your teachers and your deans.

This particular honor suggests that you are intelligent or that you are hard-working; maybe that you are both.

What do intelligence and hard work have to do with this? Well, to tell the truth, I am not really sure about intelligence. All of those IQ studies we hear about seem to come to one conclusion: none of us really have much to do with our IQ. Even if we know what intelligence is, and even if we know how to measure it accurately, our intelligence is, according to these studies, not our own doing. Whose doing is it?

Well, here are eight possibilities:

• Our parents and their genes; and, above all, their refusal to let us watch TV for 10 hours a day; let’s give that 20 points on the IQ scale.

• Our brothers and sisters, who argued with us about everything including the TV remote—another 20 points for winning the argument and 10 for crushing the remote.

• Our kindergarten teachers, who made us cooperate with kids we couldn’t stand—40 points for learning to get along with others.

• Our high school chemistry teachers, who taught us the recipe for concocting that rotten egg smell (hydrogen sulfide). Ten points for nothing, really, unless you’re a chemistry major.

• Then there’s the daily two-hour commute or subway ride, which provides time for reading, thinking, i-Podding, and snoozing—20 points. But no text messaging or cell phones; that’s minus 30 points and a ticket.

• The multi-vitamin you take every day, 10 points.

• The fourth cup of coffee you have every morning that tightens your synapses for clearer thinking, 20 points.

• Watching The Daily Show with John Stewart to keep up with the news—30 points, or not watching The Daily Show—40 points.

When you add up the points, you see that all of us are like the kids in Lake Wobegon—a little above average, but not something we’ve achieved all by ourselves.

But there is one thing we do achieve by ourselves; there’s one thing scientific reports can’t take away from us: That’s hard work—work that we have to do on our own. And if your life is anything like mine was when I was your age, that means there’s a lot of hard work, sometimes more than we can handle. Yet somehow, somehow it gets done.

Hard work—not just the idea—but actually doing it requires a form of moral excellence. We practice that moral excellence through virtues that guide us and sustain us when we are consumed by hard work—so much so that we can hardly think about what we’re doing, only that we have the stamina to do it.

Let me point to three virtues that I think guide and sustain hard work.

Patience: My American Heritage Dictionary defines it as: bearing or enduring difficulty with calmness; persevering; being constant; capable of calmly awaiting an outcome or result.

How are we patient? Just sitting requires patience and enduring the complexities of calculating a cost-benefit analysis for an economics class; or persevering through the difficulty of gathering our thoughts for a 10-page paper describing the impact of Trieste on the writings of James Joyce; or getting through, as I am trying to do, the 800 pages of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and not just reading, but trying to really, really understand what he is talking about (and I’m not getting a grade at the end).

You are constant in showing up for classes, for turning work in on time, and working with other students on joint projects. That is hard work. We cannot do this (and everything else) without patience.

Then, there is courage. Courage is a quality of mind and spirit that enables us to face vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence and resolution (American Heritage Dictionary). Courage is not simply a virtue for the battlefield or for undergoing surgery or for saving a child from a burning building. Courage underlies the everyday willingness to look at a to-do list with self-possession rather than panic, with confidence rather than doubt, with resolution rather than faint-heartedness. The word courage comes from the Latin word for heart. That gives a clue to how it works: courage is the virtue that allows us to throw ourselves with our whole heart into the tasks at hand. Courage helps us to fix on our goal and pursue it until we have achieved it.

Finally, there is hope; it is a virtue with attitude, an attitude of confident expectation (American Heritage Dictionary), that we will achieve what we have patiently and courageously set out to do. Some of you will reach that goal and celebrate your commencement in June, some of you in a year or two, some of you further down the line. But tonight, and here this evening we all join with you in hope, in confident expectation that with hard work, patience, and courage you will achieve what you have set out to do and that what you have set out to do is worthy of all your efforts.


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