Stubbornness is not a virtue

29th Week in Ordinary Time
Beloved in the Lord, today in the Gospel we see these two brothers James and John who have gotten it into their heads, that they want to be at places of honor when Jesus arrives in his kingdom. They are obsessed with this: ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Our Lord says, “What do you wish?” “That in your glory, we may sit, one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking. These brothers had latched onto this idea, and they WANTED it.
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Now James and John had a nickname, they were called ‘Sons ofThunder.’ We might say they were brash and bull-headed. ‘Do for us what we ask!,’ they say to Christ.
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In the course of our life, we meet people who are stubborn, bull-headed, and inflexible. Certain people think that being stubborn – sticking immovably to what they want – they think this is a virtue, a sign of strength. But is this strength? Is it virtuous to be stubborn?
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If we look in the Holy Scriptures, and the writings of the saints, we will not find stubbornness to be a virtue; The Bible refers to those who are ‘stiff-necked, stubborn, and hard-hearted, always as a negative. ‘Stubborn as a mule,’ – is not a compliment!
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But there are some virtues that seem similar. The virtue of fortitude for example, which means the courage to do something good, no matter how much we have to suffer. There is the virtue of perseverance. This means, that when we do something difficult, we keep going, we ‘persevere’ even when others might be against us. It sounds kind of like stubborn. And then there is the virtue of faithfulness. Remaining faithful to God, to our spouse, to the Church, no matter who or what is trying to oppose us or tempt us.
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St. Joan of Arc needed to have courage to keep following what the Lord was asking of her. She needed ‘perseverance’ when everyone was against her; and she showed the virtue of faithfulness to God even when they burned her at the stake. She was unmovable, she was faithful through it all, and became a great martyr. But this was not stubbornness.
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The strong, virtuous person is striving for what is good, for what God wants. But this is not what a stubborn person is doing. Acts 7:51 says: ‘You stubborn people, you are always resisting the Holy Spirit.’ So a stubborn person holds tightly to his OWN will, not God’s will. A stubborn person insists on his own preferences, and won’t give in to another’s ideas or what God wants.
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Normally, a virtuous person will accept decisions that are not easy for him; he will accept what his boss asks him to do, even if he does not like it; and in many small matters in the course of a day, he will accede to the other person’s preferences out of humility. For a virtuous person – he will accept many things that go against his own will, because he wants to do God’s will.
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Sometimes, a virtuous person must stand up against popular opinion; if a teen finds that his friends are speaking or acting against the moral law of Christ, he will stand firm in the Truth. He will be immovable, in standing for what is right, even if the whole world is against him. They may call him stubborn, but this is not stubbornness, it is faithfulness, because he is following God. But the stubborn person holds onto his own preferences and his own will, even in silly, insignificant things.
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A stubborn person get’s his mind fixated on one way of doing things – his own way – and will listen to nothing else. He may insist that the quickest way to Franklin Park is through Bensenville, because that’s all he knows, and that’s that! Reasoning with him or showing him maps will not change his mind. Some people are so bull-headed, that even if all the evidence shows that they are wrong, they will not change their mind. The stubborn person in-effect, does not live in the real world. He has his own world; it is very simple and very clear, but it must be protected.
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And this is because he has to protect his ego; feeling insecure, he says to himself, ‘If I am not stubborn, if I give in, people will walk all over me; it will appear that I am weak, so I must never back down.’ Such obstinate persons are described as having too much ego, unwilling to be wrong; hot-tempered, self-centered, fearful of the unknown, controlling, or defensive.
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The stubborn person creates an entire world around his ego, in order to protect himself, lest he appear weak. And he therefore doesn’t trust anyone. St. John Cassian tells[i] of an ancient monk of the desert who decided that he would not eat any food unless God gave it to him in a miraculous way. As he wandered in the desert, starved with hunger, he encountered some savage people who felt sorry for him, and offered him some bread. But he was so bull-headed that he would not accept it, and instead died of starvation.
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Stubborn people are very good at making decisions; they make the decision and act, full steam ahead! They don’t wait around for advice or other ideas, and they don’t consider the possibility that they might be wrong. A bull-headed person can be a strong leader and get things done, but he might go down a wrong path, because he is not careful.
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To the stubborn person, the worst thing that could happen to him, is to appear weak. St. Thomas Aquinas says[ii] that the stubborn person is too attached to his own opinion and unwilling to give up his own will; this is due to pride, the person wants to appear to be great, and not weak, and therefore fears that any weakness might be discovered in him.
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Some people do not have the courage to be openly bull-headed, and so they have learned to get their own way by more subtle methods: doing a job begrudgingly, slowing down their work as a statement of protest, excuse-making to avoid what they don’t accept, or manipulating the situation in defiance.
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Dr. Allers, in his famous book on Psychology[iii] says (that) serious problems with obstinacy are often due to mistakes in a child’s upbringing. If a child has feelings of worthlessness or inferiority, and is not shown understanding, but is criticized, the reaction can become anti-social behavior: he sets himself against the world and doesn’t trust anyone.
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Obstinate children are generally very unhappy, and will spend their life protecting their self-esteem. If they have a choleric temperament, they will be openly bull-headed and confrontational; if their temperament is melancholic, their stubbornness will be seen by passive methods of defiance. Diaries of such children show that they are full of complaints of loneliness, thoughts of running away, and longings for affection.
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But obstinate children are easily helped. A 12 year old girl who at home was stubborn and obstinate, and who went away to a school run by some Religious Sisters – she changed completely. The first nun to meet with the girl spoke to her with affection and understanding, and that was the end of her obstinacy.
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If our co-worker or family member is stubborn and bull-headed, we might just try telling him that one of his ideas is very good, and showing him some real affection. What the stubborn person does not realize, is that if he would trust a little, and open his heart, people would not hurt him; if he would not be so insistent on his own way, and even admit sometimes that he is wrong, people would respect him more, not less.
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Stubbornness is not a natural virtue, nor a Christian virtue; it is not a virtue. But courage, perseverance, and faithfulness to God – these are virtues. Living them means dying to our own will, and embracing God’s will, especially if it is not what we prefer.
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May the Blessed Virgin intercede for us; Mary, pray for us, that despite our failings, we may become virtuous, and configure ourselves more to Jesus Christ.

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[Entrusted to the prayers of St. Thomas Aquinas]

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[i] Philokalia(1), p. 101.

[ii] Summa Theologica, Q. 132 a5, under Vainglory.

[iii] The Psychology of Character, pp. 162-170

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