Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage

You may have seen Dan Crenshaw on television or on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. He’s the 37-year-old Texas congressman who wears an eye patch and an easy-going air of wisdom.

The eye patch represents a huge part of Crenshaw’s life story, which he shares in his 2020 autobiography, Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage. In 2012, an improvised explosive device left him without his right eye and blinded in his left while he was on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. He spent some time almost completely blind, regaining only partial vision in one eye. Afterwards, he completed two more tours of duty and then successfully ran for Congress in 2018.

The injury is just one of several adversities Crenshaw shares to illustrate his life philosophy summed up in the book’s title: Fortitude. To Crenshaw, fortitude is strength in the face of adversity, an appreciation of duty, and the love of a challenge. These and related traits like resilience, gratitude, and conscientiousness are powerful assets. 

That stands starkly opposed to fragility, victimhood, and outrage which seem to be on the upswing in certain pockets of America. Crenshaw is careful not to dismiss righteous outrage over true injustices, but as a mindset fragility forgoes introspection and eschews individual agency. Practitioners of perpetual outrage are quick to claim victimhood and blame perceived villains. A public demand of penance often follows.

To illustrate his points, Crenshaw keeps going back to his Navy SEAL training. It was a physically and mentally brutal experience, and it is designed that way for a reason—to wring the fragility out of a recruit and instill fortitude and its related traits, without which recruits would be unable to endure the reality of life as a SEAL. Without mental and physical strength, missions would fail and people would die.

The trait of fortitude isn’t just for Navy SEALs, however. Most of our lives don’t hang in the balance if we are unable to keep our cool, analyze a challenge objectively, and do what it takes to execute a solution. Since adversity is a fact of life and always will be, the mental toughness described by Crenshaw not only serves each of us in our personal lives, but leads to a stronger society. After all, a society is no stronger or weaker than the individuals who compose it.

Crenshaw is a conservative, but his message is not particularly partisan even though many of the practitioners of perpetual outrage are on the left. There is growing concern on both sides that name calling and “cancelling” opponents has replaced debate. He cites wise words by President Barack Obama as he left the presidency in 2016 after two terms of watching the outrage mob take a stronger grip on politics. 

“I think that I can have a polite dialogue with somebody who differs from me,” Obama said. “And so, on the one hand, my advice to progressives like myself—and this is advice I give my own daughters who are about to head off to college—is don’t go around just looking for insults.” The former president was clearly speaking to the same tendency to seek out opportunities to take offense and demand atonement—the culture of fragility.

“You’re tough…If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas,” Obama continued. The spirt of the comment is the old fashioned notion that good ideas tend to win, but debate is precluded when one side recoils from a challenge.

Resilience, the willingness to pursue the challenge, is a product of mental fortitude. Crenshaw doesn’t just advise making oneself resilient, though, he advises becoming anti-fragile. A resilient person can endure adversity; an anti-fragile person is made stronger by adversity.

Many people seem to live by the opposite mindset, however.

As the book’s subhead indicates, Crenshaw points to a culture of grit and determination as the remedy for the culture of outrage and victimhood. He spends a lot of time making the point that the things most worth doing are hard—one of the chapters is actually called Do Something Hard. This is true of endeavors like Crossfit, running a marathon, doing one’s best on a job simply because duty compels it – and it’s true in the arena of public debate.

Persuasion requires mental strength, intellectual curiosity and inquiry, and an effort to understand the other side’s way of thinking. It’s hard. By contrast, outrage and browbeating require no more effort than claiming victimization and demanding apologies. 

Crenshaw recounts one of his first votes a member of the U.S. House. Walking to the Capitol, he saw a group of people protesting. It wasn’t clear what they were angry about, except that they wore shirts saying “Stay Outraged.” No specific political gripe, the group was advocating remaining always at the boiling point for the sake of being at the boiling point. That’s not just a recipe for political chaos, it’s a recipe for a miserable life.

Crenshaw’s book isn’t all about politics. In fact, he spends a great deal of time sharing his experience with physical challenges, including SEAL training and his time in Afghanistan. He talks a lot about his mom, who was diagnosed with cancer when he was five and passed away after a crushing 5-year battle. She never complained once, Crenshaw recounts.

She suffered but never sought sympathy, instead focusing on being a great mom. He talks a lot about the virtue of suffering—whether voluntary and comparatively minor, or the result of the hand one is dealt by fate.

Crenshaw does not lean hard on his Christian faith, but the wealth of wisdom faith contains on the topics of the book are hard to avoid. “For Christians, our faith was founded on the ultimate act of suffering,” he writes.

He quotes Romans 5:3: “We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

While the unparalleled prosperity we now enjoy affords us more comfort and less suffering, this reality has a trade-off. More so than any country, America is built on people of character taking up the challenge of preserving freedom and passing it along to successive generations. The American experience is one of perseverance against challenges, from the struggle to settle the frontier to the long fight for Civil Rights. 

People of decadence are ill suited to the task, but prosperity doesn’t make decadence or fragility inevitable. That’s why Dan Crenshaw’s advice to joyfully take up challenges, endure suffering, and actively work to become a stronger person as a result, is the kind of message our nation needs.

RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature.