Pyrrhic Victories

On the first day of an economics class that I took as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, the professor, James Kearl, conducted a dollar auction, which is a game designed by Yale economist Martin Shubik. In the game, the auctioneer offers a dollar for sale at a starting bid of 5¢. The catch is that both the highest and the second-highest bidders will need to pay the amount they bid, although only the highest bidder will receive the dollar. At first, it seems obvious that the participants will come out ahead, because who would bid more than a dollar for a dollar? But as the bidding continues, it becomes clear that both the top bidder and the second bidder will lose money. I remember Dr. Kearl asking the second bidder, “Do you want to leave your bid at $1.25 and lose all of it, or raise your bid to $1.35 and only lose 35¢? And on it went until one of the students (me, in this case) decided to stop the escalation and accept his losses.

I was reminded of this game as I read about the last generation of Jaredites today. Why would anyone make decisions that would destroy their own civilization? I find the narrative in Ether 14 and 15 to be appallingly realistic:

  • Gilead dethrones Coriantumr and is subsequently assassinated by his high priest. The high priest is, in turn, murdered by a man named Lib, who becomes king (Ether 14:8-10).
  • The armies of Coriantumr and Lib fight, and Coriantumr kills Lib (Ether 14:11-16).
  • Lib’s brother Shiz takes over the army and continues the battle against Coriantumr’s army. Shiz adopts a “take no prisoners” approach: “He did overthrow many cities, and he did slay both women and children, and he did burn the cities” (Ether 14:17).
  • The people flock to the two armies as the war escalates (Ether 14:19-20).
  • The body count rises so quickly that the people stop burying their dead (Ether 14:21-13).
  • Coriantumr offers Shiz a truce, which Shiz rebuffs (Ether 15:1-6).
  • After several more battles, the people gather at a hill called Ramah for their final battle (Ether 15:11-14). After two days of battle, Coriantumr tries one more time unsuccessfully to convince Shiz to stop the battle. As Moroni explains, the people were too far gone for reconciliation at this point: “The Spirit of the Lord had ceased striving with them, and Satan had full power over the hearts of the people; for they were given up unto the hardness of their hearts, and the blindness of their minds that they might be destroyed; wherefore they went again to battle” (Ether 15:19). Five days later, everyone was dead except Coriantumr (Ether 15:29-32).

A pyrrhic victory is a victory that takes such a toll on the victor that it might as well have been a loss. The term comes from an ancient Greek king named Pyrrhus, who suffered such heavy casualties while winning a battle that he said, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined” (Plutarch. Parallel Lives: Pyrrhus21.9).

I see an important principle in all of these stories: Don’t be myopic. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions instead of focusing on the immediate desire for victory. Whether it be an argument with a loved one, a business deal that you really want to close, an athletic contest, or any other activity in which there is a “winner,” the relentless pursuit of immediate victory can come at a devastating cost. Better to play the long game and work for sustainable success than to get caught up in a competitive spirit and lose the perspective which is necessary for wise decisions.

Today, I will strive to see the big picture. I will strive for a soft heart and a discerning mind. I will focus on the things that matter most and avoid getting caught up in things that have little long-term significance.

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