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Fouad Abou-Rizk
Personal Writing

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How to Fortify Your Life

A lesson on fortitude, a cardinal virtue.
This piece of writing is adapted from a talk I gave to middle schoolers in a Confirmation program at my parish.
Fortitude isn't a word we use a lot, but to understand the meaning of it, let's talk about two similar words: fortress and fortify. Imagine you're fighting a medieval battle. You've got your base within the walls of a fortress or a castle. Every time you are attacked, you must fortify your defenses: making your defenses stronger to withstand each attack of your enemy or enemies.
Fortitude is a virtue that helps us persevere when we face challenges and choose to do the right thing even when it is hard.
Through the beginning of high school, I played lots of soccer. If you asked the 8th grade Fouad where I would be in 10 years, I would tell you that I would be a professional soccer player. I had pretty good skills, but I had one huge problem. I was slow. My coach Eduardo told me repeatedly that I needed to start running if I wanted to be a great soccer player. I hated running and didn't want to do that.
In my fall freshman year biology class, one day, we had a substitute who was the boy's track and cross country coach. His name was Coach Vera, and he spent almost the entire class attempting to convince me to try winter track, and eventually, I gave in. I started running in an attempt to become a better soccer player. After a little while, I enjoyed running and stopped soccer.
Coach Vera believed in me and made me believe in myself.
Instead of focusing on only the fastest athletes, he spent his time working with people like me who were motivated to improve and willing to put in the work to achieve their goals.
Within three months under his coaching, my fastest mile went from 8 minutes and 17 seconds to 5 minutes and 55 seconds. I told him I wanted to break a five-minute mile, which about half a dozen of my teammates could do. He told me that if I'm willing to do the work, he'll give me the support and coaching to make it happen.
The summer before my sophomore year a few of my teammates and I would meet with Coach Vera for an hour of lifting weights at the school's gym, followed by an hour or so of running at a local park every weekday. After getting home from training, I would shower, bike to my neighborhood pool for an hour of swim team practice, and bike back home. A few hours later, I would do a 30–40 minute core workout in the afternoon.
I was working my butt off, exercising three-and-a-half hours a day because I was driven to reach my goals and had the support of someone who guided and encouraged me every step. A couple of weeks before my sophomore year started, Coach Vera was let go. The new coach didn't believe in me, didn't give me any attention, and only cared about coaching the guys who were already the best. My fastest mile in sophomore spring track ended up being 5 minutes and 12 seconds. Junior year fall cross country didn't go well, and I gave up and stopped running.
In our faith, we have a leader like Coach Vera who is there to train the people who want to put in the work to lead holy lives. It will take effort because your spiritual muscles don't get much stronger if you don't exercise them. We don't have spiritual milestones to be able to prove how good we are, like a five-minute mile.
The Bible compares our lives to a race.
Racing is an individual sport where as much as you might want to change other people, you can only control your own actions. Our ultimate goal in life, shaping every decision we make, should be to get to heaven. Some people aren't going to care about that goal.
You want to bring as many people with you to heaven as possible, but if someone who doesn't value your faith is dragging you away from God, you can't let them slow you down.
Becoming a faster runner had many influences. If you ran five miles a day, you would not have become as good as people who also ran five miles a day but spent fifteen minutes before and after each run stretching and practicing proper running form.
You might get a muscle injury because you didn't stretch your muscles as they did. You had to gain endurance and practice sprints. In addition, you had to consider your decisions outside of athletics; what you ate and how much you slept the previous night would affect your performance on race day. You needed to stay hydrated also.
All of this can be analogized to living out our faith.
Life is like an individual sport. The more time we spend strengthening our faith muscles through prayer and Bible reading, consuming spiritual food in the Eucharist, and cleansing ourselves in Confession, the more well-equipped we will be to succeed in our end goal: going to heaven.
If you remember Avengers: Endgame you'll know that the character Black Widow sacrificed her life to obtain the Soul Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones required to bring back half of all living beings.
She faced all kinds of challenges in her efforts to do so but was very brave and never gave up, even when it ended up in her death. She must have believed it was worth giving up her life to save all those people.
Jesus did the same.
He died to save us from our sins. He was mocked, spat upon, beat up, whipped dozens of times, and then after all that, carried the cross He was going to be crucified on over a quarter mile to the location of His crucifixion before being nailed to it.
On the day He was crucified, Jesus was a model of fortitude, choosing to persevere when things were hard and do what needed to be done to save us from our sins.
We all will face hardships in our lives. We will have to make sacrifices to do the right things according to how God wants us to live.
Standing up for the kids at school who are being bullied might make you some enemies, but it's the right thing to do.
If your friends want you to hang out with them, but you know they'll be up to no good, it'll be worth it to be alone at those times. You're not missing out on anything.
The older you get, the more you'll see how living a Christian life is unpopular. When I was in college, I was required to make a short film for a class, and all of the scripts we had to choose from were full of cursing, including cursing the Lord's name. When my group settled on one, I told my peers, "I'm removing all the times it curses God's name or Jesus' name and I hope you guys are okay with that."
It was uncomfortable to confront my fellow group members about that; they would not have changed those lines, but they respected my convictions. You have to stand firm like a fortress.
Every time you say, "I'm going to do the right thing" in a difficult situation, you are growing in the virtue of fortitude.
Let's go back to the medieval fortress analogy and connect it to some of Jesus' words from Luke 6.
"I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, listens to my words, and acts on them. That one is like a person building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when the flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it because it had been well built. But the one who listens and does not act is like a person who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, it collapsed at once and was completely destroyed."
If you get to know Jesus' words in the Bible, you'll have a clear direction of how to make the best decision when you face all kinds of situations in life.
Ask Him to be your coach and invest the time and effort to learn the lessons He taught through his words and his example. Think of Jesus' words, the foundation of your life, as fortitude.
The teachings of our faith, particularly those directly from the mouth of Jesus, are the fortifications you need to defend your life from sin, Satan, and all the forces that aren't moving you in the direction of heaven.

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