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GROWING UP CATHOLIC | The virtue of being stubborn

We can learn from St. Damien of Molokai, a model ‘bullhead’

My youngest daughter, two years old, is so stubborn that she refuses to acknowledge advice. I tell her to hold on with both hands while I push her on the swing or not to roller skate down the stairs. She pretends she never heard me. If I physically intervene to stop her from a dangerous activity, she stubbornly returns right back to it as soon as I look away. This gets her into all sorts of trouble. At this point, she basically considers band-aids a type of jewelry.

My children, of course, inherit their stubbornness from their father. I cannot possibly count high enough to catalog how many mistakes I’ve made that a little flexibility and open-mindedness could have helped me avoid. Stubbornness causes problems. A stubborn person often takes the long, difficult path instead of making a course correction.

On May 10 we celebrate the Feast of St. Damien of Molokai. He was famous for two things: 1) giving his life in service to a leper colony, and 2) being amazingly stubborn. “A bullhead, that Damien,” wrote one of the superiors in his religious order. Another superior became so frustrated that he called him “A failed priest.”

I wonder, though, if some of that stubbornness, even if it frustrated people, was partly responsible for his success. There can be an advantage to stubbornness if we’re stubborn about the right sort of things.

For me, stubbornness becomes problematic when it means I reject advice or alternate suggestions, causing me to refuse to admit my way was wrong. Instead, I dig in and make the mistake worse. For a long time, I wrestled with what it means to hold convictions so strongly. It’s all about context. In some situations stubbornness is a flaw; in others, it’s a strength.

Damien was stubborn enough to insist on going to the leper colony. He repeatedly insisted until his superiors finally relented. Once there, he was stubborn enough to remain, doing difficult and heartbreaking work, begging for medical care and clothing for the lepers. He asked again and again, never relenting in fighting for their rights. When he caught leprosy himself, he remained faithful to his vocation until the day of his death. Yes, he was stubborn, but he made it a virtue.

My daughter has recently been going to the roller skating rink with her older siblings. She wanted to skate with the big kids and for six months has been stubbornly practicing, falling down hundreds of times. She never gave up. It never even occurred to her to give up. She now skates all by herself without any help. Did I think she could do it? No, I didn’t. But she believed in herself and was stubborn enough to grab that dream and not let go.

Whatever your dream is, be stubborn about achieving it. Put your personality trait to positive use and don’t let it become a flaw that holds you back. What some people label as stubbornness, we might more accurately describe as determination and courage.

Father Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.

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