Op-Ed: Pyrrhic Victory by George Merrill


An instructive piece of history.

Around 280 BC, Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus was asked by the people of Tarentum in southern Italy to help them in their war with the Roman Republic.

He had a strong army fortified by war elephants ( Romans were not experienced facing them), Pyrrhus enjoyed initial success against the Roman legions, but suffered heavy losses even in these victories. Pyrrhus said after the second battle of the war, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” He could not call up more men from home and his allies in Italy were becoming indifferent. The Romans, by contrast, had extensive manpower and could replenish their legions even if their forces were depleted in many battles, thus, a Pyrrhic victory.

A Pyrrhic victory, then, is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has also taken a heavy toll that negates any true sense of achievement. Marshalling elephants for the cause may win you the battle but lose your war.

Judge Kavanagh’s recent appointment to the Supreme Court was a Pyrrhic Victory.

I may be alone in this thought but the political circumstances surrounding the recent controversy over Judge Kavanagh’s appointment seemed centered less on justice and more on power. The exchanges exposed our social confusion over issues of gender relationships, and particularly male dominance. The elephant in the middle of the room was about how uses of power play out in gender relationships in society in general, and in particular, politics. Are women being accorded the same social and professional privileges as men? Can government dictate how a woman uses her body? Are women heard or marginalized? Do men bully women?

In a remarkable statement from our president, in the heat of the debate, he framed Dr. Ford’s testimony as another instance of how women falsely accuse men and ruin their careers. “It’s a scary time for young men in America,” the president solemnly lamented, claiming that he, too, had been victimized.

Throughout the entire hearing, sex was more central to the exchanges than justice. In one way or another, human sexuality was on everyone’s mind. The irony is how, in discussing delicate interpersonal matters that confuse us most and that we understand least, the conversation can become so strident.

From the beginning the hearings were a no win for Kavanaugh and Ford. Still, skilled statecraft and a measure of graciousness in the proceedings could have mitigated some of the residual vitriol.

I think there’s a silver lining here. My hope is that caring Americans will be sufficiently embarrassed by this national tragedy to get to the polls and vote, but will vote for the helpers, the people who care for us and for the country and who offer a vision, not a sound bite. We have an encouraging slate of newcomers as well as seasoned veterans who really want to help, who want to be servant leaders and are asking as for the chance.

I use the world ‘helpers’ from a piece I read years ago. It came right from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood where he spoke to the country in the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, one of the ugliest episodes of violence we’ve experienced. He spoke comfort to millions of children but to adults as well. He cited how he had been taught that when something terrible happens, and you suddenly feel afraid and alone, “Look for the helpers,” he said, “you will always find people helping.” It may seem a kind of soft image to invoke discussing the leadership we so desperately need, but I like it. A servant leader can really care for his constituents without being hateful.

What was notable about Mr. Rogers, was how he addressed the fears all children have; indeed, all adults have, the dark fear of violence and hatred. How powerful kindness and gentleness can be when it speaks unflinchingly to what is ugly, with compassion for others and without hate or blame.

Find the helpers and then go to the polls and vote for them. They’re ready to help and to serve.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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