Why being virtuous is a smart survival strategy

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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One should not, I suppose, pursue virtue as a means of avoiding trouble.

First, that’s not the most noble motivation. Second, there is always the risk of confusing virtue with passivity — of conflating aggressiveness with evil.

But there is a very practical reason for grounding and humbling oneself on a daily basis, and that is that it is the safest way to live.

It’s why the Greeks warned so often about flying too close to the sun. People stricken with hubris go through life foolishly believing the rules don’t apply to them. Until they get caught. It’s much wiser to go through life assuming that life’s not fair, and that if there is to be selective outrage, it will surely be applied to you (this may be especially prudent for a Republican working in a state like New Jersey.)

Bridgegate,” of course, offers us some teachable moments. Let’s take Bridget Anne Kelly, the aide fired by Gov. Chris Christie for ostensibly ordering the lane closures, as an example of how seductive power is. A recent New York Times profile paints a picture of a devoted public servant who “may have hardened” after a politician she worked for lost a Congressional campaign.

We tend to think of people as either heroes or villains, but the scary thing is how anger and bitterness in the heart can slowly metastasize. The best way to avoid this? Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Political obsession has a way of “breaking bad,” and this is why, I think, it’s especially important for those in this high-stakes game, to find some balance.

If you’re 100 percent devoted to politics — if your identity and worth is tied to that — and you lose a campaign, then you are a loser. But when you have family and friends to keep you grounded (and hold you accountable), it provides a sort of buffer. It keeps things in perspective. What is more, couple that with regular religious service attendance  — and surround yourself with positive influences — and you have created a community to work as a counterbalance to the negative influences of the world.

This is incredibly important. In politics, everyone walks a high wire, and everyone makes mistakes. That’s why it’s vital to guard your heart. Because, here’s how I think sin works — I think it’s like the kid who tells you to shoplift — and then mocks you when you get caught.

I penned a piece on the culture of political operatives the other day (and Peggy Noonan has written more eloquently on the same topic). And I think there is something to this. If your hero is Pope Francis, you will conduct yourself differently than if your hero is Machiavelli. If you’re sitting in a pew sincerely trying to “love thy neighbor as thy self,” you probably won’t lead thy neighbor into thy traffic jam.

The point here is not for political operatives to quit the business and go into the ministry, but for people, regardless of their profession, to stay grounded. How do we do this? We are, to some extent, the product of our environment, our friends, our habits, and our heroes.

A lot of political operatives glamorize The Godfather without considering the moral — that Michael Corleone ends up losing the very thing he cares about — his family — by pursuing a strategy these operatives are emulating. In the end, Corleone ends up dying alone (peeling an orange, as I recall). This is, perhaps, the same fate many of his disciples will experience (minus the orange, probably).

It’s much better to avoid playing this loser’s game. When we avoid bitterness, we help ourselves more than we help the person we forgave. This is true both spiritually, and practically. As Chris Matthews advises in his (ironically-titled?) book Hardball, “Don’t get mad; don’t get even; get ahead.”

We all endure setbacks, but it’s how you respond that matters. As Richard Nixon would say in his farewell speech, “Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them … and then, you destroy yourself.”

Take it from someone who knows.