Sunday’s Wisdom #73: The Cost of Compromise

“You want to take a shortcut? Is that right? You want to take a shortcut, remember this: you lose a chunk of your humanity every time you compromise your values.”
– Harrison Wells, The Flash
Season 2, Episode 17, “Trajectory”

Out of everyone on The Flash, Wells is easily the most qualified to say this. His is the voice of experience, after all. He is a man who has compromised his values many, many times throughout his life, his most recent deeds being exactly that: the most recent.

He says this to Barry Allen, the Flash, when the young man is at a low point. He’s been trying to hard to protect people, including the people he cares about, and yet he’s been failing so spectacularly. His enemies have an edge on him, and he is angry, and frustrated, and tired of losing. Now he finds out that there is a shortcut, in the form of a highly-dangerous drug, which could enable him to win his fights, to do what he set out to. The game is rigged, he says, everyone else is cheating, so why should he be the only one playing fair? Even more, lives are at stake, so shouldn’t he use every means he has at his disposal? Sure, it could, and likely would, kill him, but he’s selfless enough to give his life.

I look at Barry, in this moment on the show, and I see every person ever. Who does not have these moments? It’s when we’ve been trying to hard, but apparently going nowhere, while everyone else zooms ahead, and not all of them are playing by the same rules we are. It can be very tempting to take a shortcut, the quick and easy way, even if it’s “against the rules.” Can’t we be successful too? Can’t we have our way? If everyone else is doing it, can’t we, just one time, break the rules that hold us back?

But there is weakness and peril in doing things the quick and easy way. Weakness because, in doing things the easy way, we do not gain the strength we would otherwise have, which leaves us vulnerable. And peril because, when something happens and we can’t properly face the challenge, we are left broken, ruined, destroyed.

Even worse, that first compromise makes it easier to do so again, and every time we do, we lose more and more of ourselves, more and more of what makes us truly “good.” We lose what strength we had, becoming tired old shells of our former selves. We become lost, so very far from where we started. And finally, we look in the mirror and we can’t see our old self anymore. All we see is someone who should be ashamed, someone who is guilty.

Meanwhile, the fellow who refused to compromise as we did, he is standing tall, no matter where he is and no matter his condition, with the sort of enduring strength that has been built and tested again and again over the course of a lifetime.

It is not good to be inflexible, but neither is it good to be too flexible, especially with one’s standards. Either case ends in weakness.

And for those who see hear similar words from people who are anything but paragons of virtue, and think that disqualifies the value of what they say, I like how Barry replied to Wells, “That’s really rich, coming from you.”

And Wells answers, “So don’t be like me. Be better.”

It’s what every person who is filled with regret wants: to warn others away from their mistakes.

Learning from your mistakes is smart, but learning from other people’s mistakes before making your own, that is wisdom.

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