The Cardinal Virtues: A Firefighter’s Guide to Life

After a busy couple of weeks, I have once again found myself sitting on the front porch of my home pondering the path that the Lord has laid out in front of me. Many of us think that we are in control and celebrate the manner in which we have chosen to move through life. Sorry my friends, but the simple act of gazing up at the stars tends to give a man the proper sense of perspective. How can any of us think ourselves to be all that important, when placed in the face of such endless beauty? 
 
As the smoke from my cigar trailed off toward the south, my mind began to drift in another direction. I thought of those fine folks who chose to spend a couple hours of their lives with me, either in Indianapolis at the FDIC, in Baltimore at the Firehouse Expo, or in one of the many places where it has been my good fortune to teach over the past 35 years. There are some really neat folks in this fire service of ours.
 
I thought of their many kind words, and their challenge to me. Many among them have urged me to keep writing of the ways in which we can all make the fire service a better place to be. I thought of their many criticisms and vowed to improve my approach to the living of life here on earth.
 
The thoughts came drifting into my mind, slowly at first and then picking up speed. The thoughts became words, and I felt that I had to rush in to my computer and record them for your future use. Maybe these words are a bit simple, and maybe they are not. What I want these words to do is grab you by the heart and make you think about them.
 
Are you aware that there are four cardinal virtues that have guided the lives of literally millions of men going back beyond the beginnings of the great nation of ours?   These are some of the guiding principles that shaped the lives of the founding fathers of our nation. I want to share them with you. I want you to think of the impact of accepting them into your life. I want you to see if making them a part of your moral compass can make you a better person and a more effective member of the fire service.
 
It has been said that there are four cardinal virtues that can make you a more upright and honorable person. The list is short, but more meaningful than you will ever come to know at first blush. These virtues are:
 
·                     Fortitude
·                     Prudence
·                     Temperance
·                     Justice
 
I have frequently lectured and written about the importance of a leader’s moral compass. It is my most fervent belief that a morally upright person is a better leader, and a more effective member of society. Let me now share my personal thoughts about the value of these virtues and the potential for their impact upon your life and career.
 
Fortitude has been defined by some as being that noble attribute of the mind whereby we are enabled to undergo pain, peril, or danger in the performance of duty. This virtue is said by many to be equally removed from rashness and cowardice. What a great way to describe the mindset that we should adopt with regard to our duty to serve our communities and our fellow citizens.
 
Think about it. I am defining a mindset that speaks of the fact that we know there is danger in what we do as firefighters. There are also equal measures of pain and peril. After more than 46 years as a first aid man, teacher, firefighter and officer, I cannot recall the number of times I have been injured or faced death. In this way I am no different than you. 
 
I guess like many of you, I never really looked at the serious side of what we do. Oh, it was there and I trained to do my job better. I guess that I just accepted it all as part of the bargain. That is fine for me to say, but for you younger members of the fire service, I need to stress the whole equation for you.
 
People die doing what we do. People get hurt doing what we do. If you are to succeed and become accepted as a productive member of the fire service you need to know this. However, it is the many parts of fortitude that most people fail to fully appreciate.
 
What did I just say above? I stated that fortitude allowed us to endure pain, peril and danger. I also said that it was partway between being a coward and being an impetuous, rash, person. What I am attempting to tell you is that if you are going to truly embody the fullest meaning of fortitude in your life, you cannot rush into things, and neither can you hide from things. You must weigh the risks, study the potential for success, understand the real dangers inherent in doing your duty, and then act in a careful and studied manner.
 
It makes sense when you think about it. People who run away, or run around like chickens with their heads cut off are a danger to themselves and everyone around them. While others are losing their heads, you must keep yours firmly affixed to your shoulders.  This is a great way to approach any part of life, but it is truly essential in an emergency service situation.
 
Let us now take a look at the concept of prudence. I have heard it said that prudence teaches us to regulate our actions according to the dictates of reason. It enables us to wisely judge and prudently determine all things relative to our present as well as to our future happiness. In other words, I am suggesting that you need to learn how to think logically and reasonably. 
 
In short, this virtue urges us to think about what we are doing. Rather than just plowing ahead without any plan, this concept urges us to take a studied approach to living life. Determine your vision for life, and then set up a statement that tells the world who you are and what you intend to do. That plan will include a series of steps that you intend to accomplish. This plan will serve as your road map for the future.
 
Now here comes a story I have often shared with you. When I turned age 40, back in 1987, I set a vision for myself. I created a series of goals for myself and then set out to reach that vision toward which all of those goals pointed. When I gained the age of 50 years in 1997, I assessed my progress toward my goals, and determined that I had met my target. I said that I wanted to accomplish certain things during the decade of my forties. I wisely judged and prudently determined what I wanted to achieve. My feedback told me that I had in fact reached my goals. That was a really neat feeling.
 
Unfortunately, that left me with a new problem. What was I supposed to do for the next ten years? One afternoon, while waiting for my family to return from summer camp, I journeyed out to my thinking porch and just let my mind run amuck. Whereas my goals for the decade of my forties were simple, success at the next level called for a bit more work. I actually sketched out a plan on a lined sheet of paper. I then set out on the next level of my journey through life.
 
Many years have passed since that August day in 1997.   I still have that sheet of paper taped up on the wall above my computer monitor. I went through the same process in 2007 when I turned 60. Let me assure you that I am still a work in progress on all fronts. But more importantly, I have learned that it is important to have fun working toward my goals.
 
You too can focus your life like this. However, only you can decide to wise judge and prudently determine on all things relative to your present, as well as to your future happiness. I cannot live your life for you.
 
The third cardinal virtue of temperance will allow you to maintain a clear head while others are losing theirs. Temperance is that due restraint upon the affections and passions that renders a body tame and governable and guards the mind against the allurements of vice. This virtue helps to define your moral boundaries as you move through life.
 
Is your life to be one of drunken excess or drug-induced coma? Is it to be one where work is the only motivation, to the exclusion of your family? Or is it to be a life lived where all things are enjoyed in moderation. Here too folks the choice is truly yours. I have seen many people in the fire service who have chosen to drink to excess. They became loud, nasty, and unruly. They were unable to do their job, and they failed themselves and their team at critical times. Many also lost their families in the process.
 
People who have these sorts of substance abuse problems are a danger to themselves and their co-workers. Without the necessary quick wit to thin properly they may do the wrong thing at the wrong time, or fail to complete an essential task in the proper order. If you have a clear mind you will be a better team member, one more able to carry your share of the load during times of stress and danger.
 
I am not saying that you should be a prude or a bluenose. You should wisely judge the manner in which you intend to use intoxicating spirits. You should also avoid illicit drugs like the plague they truly are. There is no such thing as a little bit of excess. You owe it to the members of your team to show up ready to work, and capable of understanding all orders and performing any tasks given to you. This is a decision you must make for yourself, but you can guess the way I am asking you to think about making it.
 
Lastly, justice is that standard of right which enables us to render to every person their just due without distinction. This virtue is enjoined by both human and divine law, and serves as the foundation and support of civil society. Quite simply, treating all people in the same manner is a great way to insure that no one gets an unfair advantage that might lead to mistrust and trouble. After all, does it not say in the preamble to our very own constitution that all men are created equal? 
 
Think about it. Is this not another variation of the Golden Rule? Do unto other people as you would have them do unto you. I cannot make it any simpler for you. My research into the leadership field has identified any number of problems that come from people who treat others poorly. I urge you to use restraint in your dealings with others.
 
Think before you act. Words once uttered can never be recovered. You can apologize for hurting others and seek forgiveness. However, the impact of what you say will remain with those you have impacted for life. Trust me when I say this. I have lost friends and made enemies by speaking before thinking. I urge you to wisely judge and prudently determine how you are going to share your life on this earth with others. 
 
It is my hope that this journey with you today might have the desired effect that I seek. I urge you to understand the four cardinal virtues I have outlined in this commentary. I ask you to weigh the relative merit of each as a part of the puzzle that makes up your life.
 
Let me ask you to weight the potential for their use in your life. Lastly, I pray that they can have an impact upon you and your career. The future of our fire service depends on you. Please work to become a better and more productive member.

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