What really matters in life

Tumult, instability, victory at any cost, and the worship of power define our political moment. The most important thing to keep in mind right now, then, is that there is a whole lot more to life than politics.  Politics is not and should not ever be everything. Simply, we can live better lives and we’re better at politics when we know this.

I stayed on campus for fall break, a decision I would recommend to anyone. By Tuesday, a peaceful silence had fallen over places usually buzzing with activity. I could focus on the things more important than politics at a depth that is hard to reach in the bustle of the class week.  

I woke up at around 8 on Tuesday. I threw on some sweats, tied my sneakers, and made my way downstairs to start running. Frankly, I didn’t care at all about politics and it was a great relief.  Cold air rushed to greet my bare face. Something about the turn of the seasons, I thought quietly. I had a feeling it would be a good run.

I took off, down the street, hurling myself down the rain gutter to the path around the first lake, and past the boathouse. My heart rate kicked up. The trees parted to my left and the sun peeked through.  I put my head down along the dirt trail and kept my pace up. I was passing the seminary and the towering silver cross that rests on the short hill when I glanced to my left towards the Dome.

Warm sunlight diffused across the beautiful world I now beheld. The lake glistened, clear and blue, while cool smoke danced along the surface. Mary, our Mother, cloaked in gold and standing atop the Dome, warmly glowed in pleasant contrast to the cold air around her.  

I took in this scene crouched beneath the branches of a tree whose leaves were soft yellows and reds. My heart pounded and my lungs grasped for air. My face and hands were freezing, but warmth emanated from my chest. I think––I hope––that this warmth reflected something of a soul being elevated; that in that moment of peace amidst physical strain, my soul participated fully in the scene before it; that the commonplace reflections of His grace found in nature were nourishing and elevating my soul.

Getting back on the trail, I pushed my pace. Free, I thought quietly. I was free. But it was a special kind of freedom. I wasn’t free to run just anywhere or do anything. It wouldn’t have been a memorable feeling if it were a desire to act on whatever impulse presented itself to my mind. I probably would’ve just stopped running. Running hard and in the cold certainly isn’t the most pleasurable thing to do.

Instead, I felt directed––directed to continue along the dirt path. But the direction was not any sort of unjust or harmful restraint. No, continuing along that path was the best use of the freedom I had. I had a couple of good ends in mind––to finish the run at a good pace, to pray at the Grotto––and I committed to the path which would best serve those ends.

Aye, there’s the bigger point. The freedom we are lucky to enjoy is gained, protected, and exercised properly through self-mastery.  

There exists an essential connection between freedom, rightly understood as self-mastery, and good politics. Freedom isn’t worth having if it won’t be used well. We control and orient what we fundamentally sense are unstable, fleeting, often ill-ordered desires by learning to love the right things.  In this way we may exercise our freedom for the good in both private and public spaces.

Politics can hinder this journey to self-mastery. Politics, divorced from other, more important facets of life like family and faith, teaches us to love power and to look for conceited ways to feed pride, in public and private. It teaches us to do anything we think we must and to worship the immediate, the short-term, and the temporal. It causes us to overlook the wisdom found in the past. It causes us to forget that a view towards the future––towards the other life––is actually the “great secret,” as Alexis de Tocqueville calls it, of succeeding in this world.  

Those of us who love studying politics and those called to political service must take time and space away from the incessant noise of politics. We must grow comfortable in the silence of our own thoughts if we want to truly grow and to live well.

We certainly can all live well, but we will constantly frustrate our own efforts to do so if we get caught up in politics. I’ve made that mistake many times before, and I’m glad I stepped away from it for a bit. Why make the journey of living well any more difficult than it already is?  

Besides, living well helps politics. Only by living well can we hope to engage in good politics.

Nick Marr is a junior from San Diego, CA. He lives in Knott Hall and studies history and political theory. As a 10 year old, he argued with a Supreme Court justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan. You can reach him at nmarr@nd.edu.