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THE WAY TO LIVE_DOT II (YOURSELF) // CHAPTER 13
As we’ve decided, our goal is to live a life of meaning. To make an impact. We want to do what is right; we want to do what is good. So how do we decide what is good?
We mostly think that the things we want are good things. But good things are not always good for us. Junk food is an example. Fried chicken is delicious. That makes us want it because it tastes good. Isn’t fried chicken unhealthy? Yes, that makes us not want it because it’s bad for us. We want it, because it tastes good, but we shouldn’t want it, because it’s bad for us.
It may seem that things that are painful are bad because we often think pain is bad. But many things that are painful are not things we should avoid. Working out is often painful. Therefore, is it bad? Working out also increases my health and quality of life, so it’s good. So, what is painful is not always bad. Life, like food and exercise, is often confusing, as you can see. Things that feel good are sometimes bad. Things that feel bad are sometimes good. Salad tastes so bad, how could it possibly be good for us?
How do we know we are doing what is good and not bad? How do we know we are doing the right thing and not the wrong thing? We are often counseled to look at what prevailing culture establishes as acceptable and use that as a template. Alas, we know the folly of this. For a long period of human history, slavery was not just acceptable, it was seen as good. Racism in the form of segregation was also seen as ethical and moral at one time. There is much about our world today that may be seen as good and desirable now, but that doesn’t make these things so.
We see this dilemma play out in professional sports too. Lance Armstrong cheated his way to seven Tour de France cycling titles. While competing, he stated vehemently that he never cheated. Shortly after his career was over, in an exclusive interview with Oprah, he admitted to doping throughout his cycling career. During his admission, he said that it didn’t feel like he was cheating because everyone he knew was doping. The culture created his standard for goodness.
“Everyone cheats,” said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen in 2005. “If you don’t get caught, you’re a smart player. If you get caught, you’re cheating.”[i]
Many athletes who get caught doping use the excuse that everyone is doing it. We do too. If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that what we see as acceptable—or even good—is based on what those around us see as acceptable. This is an impotent way to live. We teach our children that the road to mediocrity is following the crowd while justifying our actions because “everyone else is doing it.” Even worse, there are many people who live life with a “no good deed goes unpunished” mentality. Where they may as well be selfish, unkind, or evil because they are going to be mistreated anyway.
How do we avoid this? We are not immune to what caused Lance Armstrong or many before and after him to fall. We are human just like them.
The only way to ensure that our thoughts, attitudes and actions are right and good is to make sure we have a true north on the compass of life. We must know this true north and always keep it in front of us.
What matters most in your life? You may know what you want in life, but how do you plan to get there? We know that we should have the right perspective, attitudes and actions, but what does it mean for them to be “right”? How can you know you are doing the right thing? Especially when it seems you are swimming upstream and everyone else is headed in the opposite direction?
The Stoics claimed that the reason to control our thoughts, attitudes and actions was because all that mattered was living a life of virtue. Culture, ideologies, ethics and even morals change. But our virtues can withstand the onslaught of life. True nobility lies in the pursuit of what is good and right. What is good and right can only be defined in the context of our virtues.
The Stoic virtues are:
Wisdom – The ability to transcend good and evil. To differentiate between what is good and what is best and choose what is best.
Courage – The power to have equanimity, resiliency and bravery in the face of danger and fear.
Temperance – The ability to practice moderation, self-control and self-discipline.
Justice – Doing what is right and fair for others first, and ourselves second.
The Stoics believed that as long as they strived to live by these four things, they would do good. “Rightness” is a matter of living by virtue, not doing what seems pleasant in the moment or culturally acceptable.
The way to be truly good is to choose a life of principle. To live a life of virtue.
In the early 1900s, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago and was one of the most famous people in America. He was notorious for entangling the Windy City in everything from bootlegged alcohol and prostitution to murder.
Al Capone had a lawyer nicknamed “Easy Eddie.” He was Capone’s lawyer for a good reason: Eddie was very good at what he did. In fact, Eddie’s skill at legal maneuvering kept Capone out of jail for a long time. Eddie was paid very well, and his estate was so large it filled a Chicago city block.
Eddie enjoyed his life and didn’t think much about the activities of Al Capone and the mobsters he represented. After all, he was just their lawyer, he didn’t do any of the things that the Mob did. He was a good man who worked with bad people. At least, that’s how he justified it. Eddie had a son he loved dearly and used every resource he had to provide his son with every opportunity.
Despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie resolved to teach his son right from wrong. Eddie wanted him to be a better man than he was. Yet with all his wealth and influence, Eddie realized that there were two things he couldn’t give his son: he couldn’t pass on a good name and he couldn’t set a good example.
One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. Wanting to right the wrongs he had done, he decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Capone and the Mob, clean up his tarnished name, and live a life his son could follow. To do this, he would have to testify against the Mob. The cost would be great, but he testified.
On November 8, 1939, Easy Eddie’s life would end in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago street.
Three years later, on February 20, 1942, Lt. Cmdr. Butch O’Hare was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific.
One day, his entire squadron was sent on a mission. After he was airborne, Butch looked at his fuel gauge and realized he would not have enough fuel to complete his mission and get back to his ship. His flight leader told him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet. As he was returning to his carrier, he noticed an entire squadron of Japanese aircraft speeding their way toward the American fleet.
All the American fighters that would normally defend the fleet were gone on a mission, and the fleet was defenseless. He couldn’t reach his squadron and bring them back in time to save the fleet, nor could he warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert the oncoming aircraft. Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dove into the formation of Japanese planes.
Wing-mounted .50-caliber guns blazed as he attacked one surprised enemy plane after another. Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired until all his ammunition was spent. Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many of them as possible. Finally, the remnants of the Japanese squadron fled in another direction.
Butch O’Hare made it back to the carrier where he reported the event. The film from the camera mounted on his plane showed the extent of his attempt to protect his fleet. He had, in fact, destroyed five enemy aircraft.
For his actions, Butch became the Navy’s first flying ace of WWII and the first Naval aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. A year later, Butch was killed in aerial combat at the age of twenty-nine.
His hometown would not allow the memory of this WWII hero to fade, and today, O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man.
So what do these two stories have to do with each other? Butch O’Hare was Easy Eddie’s son.
What made a man like Eddie O’Hare decide to change? He decided what he wanted out of life. He wanted to leave a legacy for his son and a name Butch could be proud of. This became his true north, his why. Easy Eddie determined to live a life of virtue. Because of his choice, his son was able to inspire a nation.
It is important to think about living by virtue. It is more important to live by virtue. The Stoic philosophy is not a philosophy of ideas but one of action. All perception, attitudes and actions should be done in accordance with accomplishing these four virtues.
These virtues went on to be used by the Stoic theologians Ambrose, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to describe the basis for the behavior and virtues of a Christian. They have become known to many as the cardinal virtues. These virtues did not originate with church fathers, they began with philosophers.
“You must have these principles at hand both night and day; you must write them down; you must read them.” // Marcus Aurelius[ii]
Today, we would call these core values. You may have heard that term before. Your business probably has core values. Oftentimes, these are sentiments that look nice on a wall but don’t change much about the way we act.
Enron was one of the largest energy companies in America with over $100 billion in revenues. They claimed to have a core value of integrity. They went bankrupt because of an SEC investigation that revealed wide-scale corporate fraud and corruption.
Core values don’t matter when they’re written. They matter when they are lived.
A life of virtue requires us to live by virtue. The only way to make sure that your life is good, that your perceptions, attitudes and actions are right, is to aim them at your virtues.
You don’t have to choose the Stoic virtues as your own, but choose your virtues and live by them. Once you resolve to live by your virtues, nothing can stop you from succeeding. Because nothing can ever impede your ability, choose to practice your virtues. Your perceptions, attitudes and actions can line up with your virtues at any time and in any situation, regardless of what lies outside of your control. According to the Stoics, the only way to become a failure, the only way to live a bad life, is to fail to live by your virtues. The road to a good life begins and ends with living according to your virtues.
All of us need a cause. What cause could be more noble and just than to seek to live a life of virtue?
What virtues do you wish to live by?
[i] “Everybody Cheats?” Chicago Tribune, June 23, 2005, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2005-06-24-0506240277-story.html.
[ii] Aurelius, Meditations.