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St. Damien and the virtue of being stubborn


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 05/02/21

Put this personality trait to positive use and live your mission!

When I was 10 years-old, I was on a field trip to the local courthouse when the tour guide allowed us to participate in a mock trial. I was chosen as one of the 12 child-jurors. After hearing the deliberations, we retired to the jury room to decide the pretend fate of the pretend defendant. It was a very serious moment for us. All the other children voted innocent, but I voted guilty. No amount of discussion could make me change my mind. It was like a bizarre, miniature version of 12 Angry Men – only completely opposite because I was totally wrong and we ended up as a hung jury. The tour guide had never seen anything like it before.

You might say that I’m a stubborn person.

My children have inherited this trait. Our youngest daughter, two years old, is so stubborn that she refuses to acknowledge even hearing us when we offer her advice. If we physically intervene to stop her from a dangerous activity, she stubbornly returns right back to it the instant our backs are turned. This gets her into all sorts of trouble, and her bullheadedness often results in personal injuries. At this point, she basically considers Band-Aids a form of jewelry. She refuses to stop standing up in her highchair. She has fallen off the highchair many times. She refuses to stop sneaking candy. She has thrown up from eating too much candy several times.

What I mean to say is, stubbornness causes a lot of problems. A stubborn person makes mistakes that are easily avoided, often taking the long, difficult, stressful path to solve a problem when accepting a simple piece of advice would have helped solve it much more easily. 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.

I recently read a biography of St. Damien of Molokai, The Spirit of Father Damien, written by Jan De Volder. There’s an entire chapter in it devoted to Damien’s legendary stubbornness. He was constantly clashing with the superiors of his religious order. One of his superiors wrote in a letter, “A bullhead, that Damien,” and went on to say that Damien’s behavior was selfish. Another superior clashed with Damien several times, and finally described him as, “a failed priest.”

In fact, the reality was quite the opposite. Damien was a beloved, successful priest who eventually became a saint. There’s no denying he was a stubborn man, but there can be an advantage to being stubborn if we’re stubborn about the right sort of things.

For me, stubbornness becomes problematic when it means I’m no longer listening to other people. That problem is compounded when it further causes me to refuse to admit that my own way is wrong. I dig in, double down, and make the mistake worse. For a long time, I wrestled with what it meant to have a propensity for holding my convictions so strongly. It became apparent to me that it’s all about context. In some situations stubbornness is a flaw, in others it’s a strength. What all us stubborn people need to do is channel our bullheadedness in the right direction.

For instance, Fr. Damien was stubborn enough to insist that he be sent to Hawaii to care for the leper colony at Molokai. He was stubborn enough to continue insisting until his superiors finally relented. Once there, he was stubborn enough to remain until his death, doing very difficult, heartbreaking work. He was stubborn enough to risk catching leprosy, which he did, and he never changed his mind about his commitment. He was faithful to his vocation until the day of his death. Damien was stubborn enough to repeatedly ask the government and the Church for medical care, clothing, and help in building housing for the lepers. He asked again and again and again, never relenting in fighting for their rights. Yes, he was a stubborn man, but he made it a strength, a way to serve his people, part of what made him a saint.

Our two-year-old daughter – she who falls off chairs out of stubbornness – has been going to the roller skating rink with her older siblings for the past six months for a weekly homeschool open-skate. She decided she wanted to skate with the big kids. For six months she’s been stubbornly learning to roller skate, falling down literally hundreds of times. She have never given 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? To be honest – no. But she believed in herself and is stubborn enough to grab that dream and not let go. The sky is the limit for this girl.

Whatever your dream, 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 come to describe as determination, self-confidence, and courage.

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