Dying for values is easy. Millions of young men do it every time we have a war, which seems to be pretty often.
Why do generation after generation of young men get suckered in to killing and being killed? Honor. Responsibility. Courage. They get about a five minute’s taste of those things on their way over the trench walls into no man’s land.
We all want those things. Courage and responsibility in the pursuit of life are what make us human.
But you’d think if duty, honor, responsibility, and courage – and safety and freedom for others – could be gained through dying in a war, we’d have fewer wars.
We continue to have wars.
We should rethink our thesis.
What if – for all the talk of noble heroism and sacrifice – war is just the easy way out? What if it’s a shortcut to counterfeit goods?
Killing and being killed for your values is a quick and simple thing to accomplish. If it requires responsibility and courage and honor, it requires them only for a short while. Living and giving life through your values is another matter altogether.
To live for your values – to give life to the world through your values – is a long, slow, campaign. It’s trench warfare that lasts 80 years. It, too, takes courage, responsibility, honor, generosity, honesty. But unlike those who kill and die for values, a life of 80 years takes many times the courage and provides many times the opportunities for human growth. With that growth, those who live their values create new possibilities around them. Their struggle builds up instead of tearing down.
Judge for yourself which direction is better: the constructive, or the destructive.
You can be thought of well if you choose the destructive path but show a little courage in it. Your tour of duty there won’t be long. Wide is the gate and broad is this road that leads to destruction – and many young men take it in war. All pasts are erased if you die well in war. You will become a hero, as you die for the cynical political agendas of empires and kingdoms and nation-states.
Choosing the constructive path brings more subtle, much more complex challenges. You will live long enough to fail many times in the pursuit of your values. You won’t get any medals for living well and for achieving your values. No one will read about your struggles in newspapers, see newsreels of your moral victories, or make speeches to encourage you. You might sell shoes for forty years. Glamor not guaranteed. But you will see your deepest values realized if you stick to it, and you’ll have all of the moments of dilemma and heroic challenge you could ask for.
Is it ever better to die for a value than to keep on living? Perhaps. Some have done it, but they usually didn’t know how to die well until they’d learned how to live well. I don’t see the millions of war dead and see people who had the time to learn how to live well. Instead, every few decades in human history, I see tens, hundreds, and thousands of thousands of young people choosing to die en masse rather than to live well.
I don’t believe they achieved the exaltation they were after. I don’t believe the true hero’s path is that popular.
Maybe one day we will stop taking the easy ways out. We’ll honor those who take the harder path of the peacemaker and the builder. We’ll honor those who win the wars within themselves instead of those who start them abroad. We’ll mourn the dead but won’t romanticize the causes of death to our children.
One day young men like me will learn to live for values instead of dying for them.
Dostoevsky said it first:
“…[Alyosha] was to some extent a youth of our last epoch – that is, honest in nature,
desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to
serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for
immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, life itself,
for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the
sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices,
and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their
seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply
tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have
set before them as their goal – such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the
strength of many of them.”
– The Brothers Karamozov, Fyodor Dostoevsky