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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Monday, April 02, 2007

Pyrrhic Victory

Back in the Dark Ages, I took two years of Latin in high school, and though I can’t say much in that dead language, I can say something for it. Studying Latin taught me to love words—not just their meaning but how that meaning evolved and endured through the centuries.

In addition to Latin and Greek etymology, I’ve always been curious about the stories behind idioms, especially the ones that come from real or fictional names (called Eponyms). This week’s idiom comes from a Greek emperor named Pyrrhus: [That's him pictured above and below.]

Pyrrhic victory (PEER-ik) noun: A victory achieved at ruinous cost. A situation in which one “wins the battle but loses the war.”

Around 306 B.C., young Pyrrhus inherited his throne and soon became known as a “fighting leader” who stood victorious on many battlefields. In 281 King Pyrrhus took his army to Italy and defeated the Romans on two major fronts. Though the Romans suffered far more losses, Pyrrhus was far from home and had no back up. Upon taking the second city, the king was congratulated but confessed, "One more such victory and I am lost."

More recent examples of Pyrrhic victories would include the Civil War battles at Antietam and Chancellorsville. In the former, the North drove Lee out of Maryland, but not without both sides suffering the bloodiest single-day battle in American history (23,000 casualties including nearly 3,700 dead). In the latter, against all odds, the South won the battle, suffered half the losses of the North, but lost General "Stonewall" Jackson in the process.

Some may consider the current Iraq war a Pyrrhic victory for our coalition forces, but a historical military perspective may confirm otherwise. It's too soon to know the lasting impact of Saddam Hussein's fall. In a political sense, however, it’s clear that President Bush's opponents have successfully turned the battle of public opinion into a "Pyrrhic" perception that has weakened our national resolve.
Setting military and political applications aside, at a personal level, there are many ways to “win the battle but lose the war.” Pyrrhic victories occur whenever we forget the highest goal of human interaction and waste intangible resources like credibility, goodwill, loyalty, or authority in petty “battles” and then have none left for meaningful “campaigns.”
A hypothetical example would be the teen who wastes “honor” by lipping off at his spinster aunt. He wins the favor of his laughing peers but loses (without knowing it) the college trust fund she had come to announce during her annual visit. (Conversely one might say, it’s the narrow-minded aunt who wastes the wisdom of her years by always “being right” but in turn loses the “right” to help her nephew mature. This analogy would apply to any situation where "youth" loses both the resources and the respect of "gray hair.")

Have you ever won an argument but lost a friend? Or won some petty grievance but lost your boss’s trust? Or harshly proved a customer wrong and lost his continued patronage? Or won obedience from a child but lost the conscience it deserved. Or trumped authority over those you lead, who learn to give precisely what you’ve asked for but never quite what you wanted?

Whenever winning is put over learning or resources are valued above relationships, life can become a series of Pyrrhic victories in which we seem to win “the upper hand” but have nothing left to hold.
. Further application: Mark 8:36


Blogger Josie said...

What a fabulous post. Someone who always win Pyrrhic victories usually ends up losing more in the end. It almost never fails. You can see it in people who are always trying to impose their will on someone else.

I love words and their roots. The English language has a story behind almost every word.

At one time I wanted to be a translator at the United Nations. Languages are fascinating.


(BTW, I have a new blog, and you can link to it through this post.)

3/4/07 1:52 AM  
Blogger Lone Grey Squirrel said...

This is a great post and a good series to start. I sense that I will actually become smarter after a few visits. Seriously, I enjoy what you are doing.

3/4/07 5:10 AM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

I will enjoy this series of yours, Patterns. I like learning about the origin of various sayings.

The idiom Pyrrhic Victory reminds me of another one: cutting off your nose to spite your face. Although the latter is more about seeking revenge at your own expense, it still involves self-defeating action.

We do well to choose our battles wisely always considering how they impact the greater war.

3/4/07 8:33 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Great new blog. We're you really up at 2 AM? I don't think I could be a translator, but my second daughter is studying in the feild of "teaching English as a second language." She loves it.

Coming from someone as smart as you, that is a true compliment. I like to sprinkle a little learning in my "musings." =)

There are so many to choose from, but I do have a "recipe" in mind. The main ingredient will be those idioms that have useful applications in life, with of smidge of the ones that make the least sense at first glance, sprinkled with passing mention of those with "I never thought of that" appeal. =)

3/4/07 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something of a Pyrric "battle" has happened at my church and your descriptions of a battle "won" but at what cost really struck me!! It saddens me when people don't think ahead to the consequences that will be made for deeds done..but only for what they want out of the deal. It's called selfishness!! Albeit...sin!

3/4/07 5:45 PM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

I also love wors so I'm glad that you have added thi to your blog. This word though I already understood including its history.

3/4/07 7:11 PM  
Blogger JR's Thumbprints said...

I know many inmates who've "trumped authority," to "get what they've asked for" but never quite got what they wanted. Example: Throwing food at the corrections officers because you think it lacks nutritional value. Next meal is nutri-loaf, where they mix all the food in a blender, then bake it. Has all the nutrients, but doesn't make quite the mess when you throw it.

3/4/07 9:36 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

There's really no setting immune from this sort of thing. Wherever you have people interacting for a "greater good" (whether in military conflicts, parenting, politics, or organizational governance) there can be poorly chosen battles and unseen Pyrrhic losses (which can be humbling but teachable moments. My oldest two, for instance, have been patient with me through the years as they've transitioned into adults.) Hope things work out for you there.

Always happy to see a comment from the most popular blogger in the U.P....Have you seen that we're going to get snow tomorrow? I hope they're wrong, but it's already coming across MN and WI. So much for Spring Break!

We had a cook in our school cafeteria (not anymore) who used to work in the correction system over here. She told me about that "loaf." I guess we could call that Pyrrhic "pay back."

3/4/07 10:56 PM  
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