President's Column

The Power of Endurance

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

Darkness fills your soul and pain pierces through your heart. Betrayed, bruised and battered, you can feel the suffering of Christ crucified. Your weary body shivers in the wind like an autumn leave. Life, in its tragic brevity and absurdity, is more than you can bear.

Perhaps, the time has come for a wandering soul to retire to its resting place. You feel tired, exhausted, and all alone. You want to serve, but there is nothing left to give. You want to cry, but there are no more tears. You want to shout, but you have lost your voice. Many a time, you have poured out your heart and cried out to God, but you could only hear you own echoes in a silent cosmos.

So what is the point of going on? What is the purpose of enduring hardship and pain? Why go on fighting?

Maybe not in so many words, but this wordless groaning and silent cry resonates with us all. Who has not experienced the brutal blows of injustice? Who has not felt the crushing weight of despair? Who has not been on the verge of giving up? Who has not bitterly questioned the meaning of life?

Nevertheless, we press on. Staggering like homeless vagabonds, we search for a better country, a welcoming home. We may bemoan the futility of our quest and complain about our wounds and battle scars; yet, we endure the pain and cling to the tiny thread of hope as fragile as our breath. Yes, one day all our dreams will come true.

In our dogged efforts to carry out our duties and pursue our life goals, we dare not pause less we may be overwhelmed by pains and doubts. We just keep on going, believing that sooner or later we will find the real thing, even though we cannot fully grasp what we really want. So, we endure and persevere and the saga of survival continues.

The Fundamental Existential Question

Do we simply strife to survive? Does life justify living? Are we all pre-programmed for self-preservation? We gasp for air, grasp for straws, and dodge bullets to stay alive. We even do awful things to others, including killing them, in the name of survival.

It seems intuitive that life justifies living, as long as life pampers, excites, seduces us, and promises that the party will never end. But when life bores, burdens, and torments us with no prospect of getting out, then we are forced to find a reason, any reason, to justify our painful existence.

Whether we realize it or not, survival always presupposes some reason, some higher purpose for living. It is just a matter of time before the question of meaning comes into focus.

The fundamental existential question confronting us is not “to be or not to be”, but “what am I living for”. Our answer to Hamlet’s immortalized question can only be derived from our answer to the oldest question of humanity regarding the meaning and purpose of existence.

Ours is a twofold quest. Firstly, we search for something that justifies living – something that makes our endless struggle for survival meaningful and worthwhile. Secondly, we search for something that that justifies dying – something that takes the sting away from death and transforms it into a glorious passage and a lasting legacy.

Death can be terrorizing. The horror of death is not the pain of dying, nor the fear of nothingness. It is the pain of having to say a permanent goodbye to those we love dearly and leave behind all the people and projects, which we deeply care about. No rational human being invites death. Yet, we have to come to terms with death as a crucial test of the significance of our life on earth. Paradoxically, we are willing to endure the severe burden of living only when we have found something worth dying for.

Indeed, life is not worth living, not worth all the troubles, unless there is something so real, so precious that we are willing to sacrifice everything for it, including our own lives.

That something is cannot be found in the material world of trinkets and trophies. It can only be found in the immaterial world of the Unseen and in transcendental values – faith, love, honor, justice, freedom, democracy, equality, peace, and all the virtues that transcend time, space and nationality.

It is only when we get out of our own skins and grasp the ungraspable transcendental reality, that we can find answers to our fundamental existential question. In the depth of our souls, there is a persistent hunger, an unquenchable thirst for a personal God, for some answer to our ultimate concerns. This persistent void keeps on gnawing away our innermost being and needling us onward.

Viktor Frankl has discovered a vital principle for survival and success. He emphasizes that within each of us, there is the will to meaning – the basic human need to discover and fulfill meaning and purpose in life, even in places of unimaginable horrors. (Is there a worse place on earth than Nazi’s death camps, where Frankl was incarcerated for years?).

In his best selling book Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl wrote: “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and, by doing so, change himself. He may turn personal tragedy into triumph and turn his predicament into human achievement.”

It is through self-transcendence and discovering a higher purpose that we find happiness and fulfillment. We are prepared to descend to hell in order to find heaven. Our quest will continue as long as the Promised Land beacons us. It is this hope for future meaning to fulfill that sustains us in trying circumstances.

Shining Examples of Endurance

As we stay the course and run the race, we need to remember those who have overcome the obstacles and turned tragedies into triumphs. The most glorious pages of human achievements are not about great scientists, artists, athletes, or war heroes, but about ordinary individuals who have endured unimaginable suffering and beat incredible odds. You do not find them in the halls of fame, but in the corridors of life.

Their resilience in the face of extraordinary adversity inspires the suffering masses. They teach us how to live with dignity and purpose, even when the world is in a horrible mess. These unsung heroes reflect the defiant human spirit and the highest virtues that transform them into spiritual beings, for they do not live by bread alone. You can find them in all walks of life:

  • The brave soldiers who fight in gruesome conditions to defend freedom and democracies
  • The courageous POWs who endure atrocity and torture for refusing to betray their country and collaborate with their captors
  • The believers who go to prison and lion’s den for refusing to give up their faith
  • The cancer patients who endure the pain and noxious side effects of radical surgery and chemotherapy in order to stay alive for their loved ones
  • The survivors of traumas who live for a higher purpose of serving others
  • The poor who struggle to stay alive for the promise of a better future
  • The pastors who endure poverty and criticisms in order to care for the spiritual needs of their parishioners
  • The single mothers who struggle to provide the best home and education for their children

Do I need to mention the many teachers, nurses, policemen, firemen, counselors and social workers, who labor in trying circumstances and sacrifice their own lives for others? Do I need to re-tell the thousands of stories of courage and endurance?

Helen Keller once said, “Our worst foes are not belligerent circumstances, but wavering spirits.” Are you tempted to waver and surrender under pressure? Remember those who stand firm like the Rock of Gibraltar and move forward unyieldingly like the Mystic River.

Even today, many years after his death, my father remains an inspiration to me. He seemed to possess seven lives. Having lost everything several times due to war, regime change and traumatic events, he always managed to bounce back. When he reached the good old age of 75, he decided to make one final run before retiring from the business world. He found himself part-time employment with an import company. After learning enough about this new business, he struck out on his own. Within a few years, he was able to re-establish himself as a major player. In spite of his many setbacks and worsening physical problems, he just never gave up. He died at the age of 87, leaving behind a small fortune and a rich legacy.

Persistence Test

When you write your own life story, what would be the leitmotif? What would be the dominant themes in different stages of your life? Can you recall one major crisis, which you endured and overcame?

After studying hundreds of resilient lives, I have discovered several common themes:

  1. Stamina – the capacity to endure frustrations, pains and difficulties
  2. Steadfastness – the capacity to stay the course and remain faithful to one’s purpose and principles
  3. Single-mindedness – the ability to concentrate and focus on what really matters
  4. Selflessness – commitment and dedication to something greater than oneself
  5. Sustained-optimistic – the capacity to remain hopeful even when situations seem hopeless
  6. Spirituality – the faith and capacity to connect with spiritual reality and transcend situational constraints

The following Persistent Test is based on these six recurrent themes. Although it has not been scientifically validated, it can be used as a helpful exercise to increase self-knowledge.

On a rating scale from 1 to7, how would you rate yourself on the following items of the Persistence Test? How would your best friend rate you?

  Most Unlike Me   Most Like Me
1. Dedication 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
2. Stamina 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
3. Determination 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
4. Discipline 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
5. Resilience 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
6. Commitment 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
7. Steadfastness 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8. Courage 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
9. Patience 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
10. Focus 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
11. Dependability 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
12. Resourcefulness 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
13. Purposefulness 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
14. Faith 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
15. Concentration 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
16. Goal-orientation 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
17. Optimism 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
18. Loyalty 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
19. Altruism 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
20. Spirituality 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

If you add up the rating scores and divide the total score by 20; you will get the result of your Persistence Test. Anything between 5 and 7 indicates varying degrees of persistence in the face of adversity.

The Promise of Success

Life is a marathon, an endurance test. What really matters is not how smart we are, but how persistent. Often endurance is the key to success.

However, endurance entails more than persistence until success. The greatest challenge is to endure all kinds of pressures and resist endless temptations in order to remain true to one’s convictions and moral principles.

Oh yes, only if you bend just a little bit, life would be much easier, and success would be within reach. Oh, yes, why fight an uphill battle? Why can’t you choose an easy path? But when you commune with your soul and listen to the still small voice, you know that you must stay the course and do what is right, regardless of the consequences. You are inspired when you think of the example of Christ: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3 – 4, The New Testament, NIV)

In a moral universe, the true spirit of endurance is to remain faithful and true to one’s calling and conscience to the point of death, in spite of mounting pressures to compromise.

Persistence without moral courage can be dangerous. Single-minded and tenacious pursuit of success without any regard for moral and spiritual laws can lead to disastrous results.

Do you remember Ahab who was bent on pursuing Moby Dick – the deadly white whale? Ahab was consumed with revenge. He was willing to sacrifice everything, including his crew, in order to destroy the whale, which bit off his leg years ago. No one and nothing could deter Ahab.

Yet, at the end there is only death – the Monster will swallow up everything, without even spitting out a tiny peace of bone.

What is your rage? What is your obsession? What is your Moby Dick? Why are you doing what you are doing? Are you pursuing something that is worth dying for?

These are fundamental questions of calling and purpose of living. The power of persistence and the promise of success can be properly understood only when we know what life demands of us.

The Development of Endurance

How do we cultivate endurance? How do we develop resilience in children and adults?

I can write a whole book on this topic. In my many years of research with both animal and human subjects on persistence, I have learned a great deal on this subject. Here are some of my main findings.

The capacity to persist can be acquired from the right combination of success and failure, reward and punishment. The benefits of learned persistence at a very young age can last well into adulthood. To protect a child from failure and pain is to deprive the child from acquiring the endurance and resourcefulness necessary to survive in a competitive world.

Another important finding is that persistence tends to follow three stages: Invigoration, Exploration and Substitution. In stage 1, we try harder. In stage 2, we explore alternative and creative ways to overcome the obstacle. In stage 3, we switch to substitution goals when our alternative responses fail to solve the problem. We can increase the capacity to persist by training creativity and resourcefulness in problem solving.

Thirdly, commitment to the goal is important. We can deepen commitment through making a series of difficult choices. Commitment is also related to the incentive – the value of reward one expects to receive at the end.

Finally, there is a breaking point for every one, but there are huge individual differences in the capacity of endurance, as a function of temperament and prior learning.

Since my early days of experimental research, I have learned four additional lessons on the development of persistence.

Self-knowledge – You can remain true to yourself, only when you know yourself and your calling. Like gold that endures the test of fire, you true self will remain, even when everything is stripped from you.

Inner resources – Discover and develop your inner resources, such as faith, meaning, hope, love and courage. You can reach deep into these inner reserves, when disaster strikes. Your defiant human spirit and your faith in God can carry you through hell.

Character – Character is the sum total of your decisions, actions and habits, especially in difficult circumstances. Like a rare and precious diamond, a sterling character is the product of years of enduring opposition for doing what is right. In the final analysis, integrity is the only guarantee you can offer to both your friends and enemies.

Supportive community – Reach out and become part of a community, which will stay with you and support you throughout your struggles. When you are in trouble and feel all alone, there are those who care.


I am sure that there are still precious lessons for me to learn. Maybe I will fully understand the power of endurance, only after passing through the valley of death and finding rest in my Father’s arms.

Whenever I think of the long, tortuous journey of life, I think of Lance Armstrong, five-time cycling champion in the Tour de France. A cancer survivor, he had a stomach flu just before the start of a recent race, and was bruised in a crash on the second day. Yet, he recovered and went on to win the cup for the fifth time in a row. “This Tour took a lot out of me,” said Armstrong after the victory.

Yes, I think of the slippery roads, the uphill battles, bad weather conditions, the dehydration, physical exhaustion, and mental fatigue. Bruised, bloodied and beaten – anything could happen. Is it worth it?

The endurance test does not seem worth it, if at the end all we receive is a corruptible crown, which we cannot take with us when we leave this world. There has to be something more.

Endurance takes on a larger meaning, when we think of success not with respect to achieving a career goal, but in terms of assessing one’s entire life.

How are we doing over the long haul? Have we recovered after a crushing fall? Have we returned to the right path after a costly detour? Have we made amends for our mistakes? Have we sold our souls in order to win the whole world? Has our integrity survived temptations? Are we remaining true to our calling? Are we still forging ahead in spite of past failures? It is never too late to reflect on these questions.

Many of my readers may be wondering: What is the price of endurance? Is it worth all the troubles? I suggest that endurance is a priceless virtue, because without it, no one can ever maintain their integrity and complete their mission in a corrupt and crooked world.

Let’s fight the good fight, endure the pain and run the race with patience. Let’s set our faces like flint towards the prize of our high calling. For those who overcome and endure to the end, there is a crown of life.