We are constantly hearing about the value and necessity of sacrifice. You have to do it to get where you want to go… You have to do it for your fellow man… You have to do it if you really love some one…
As you might guess, I reject all of these ideas. I don’t believe in sacrifice…ever. Not because I am cold and heartless, but because I have done some logical and philosophical filtering of what the word ACTUALLY means. Below is what I have come up with. It might challenge you, or you might agree. The Socratic method welcomes discussion! I know that to many, these may seem like semantics… the parsing apart of the word, its parts and its definitions is a silly waste of time. You are free to feel that way. I, on the other hand, find words and the concepts they are attached to, to be VERY powerful tools in the right hands.
Webster defines sacrifice as:
a : destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else
b : something given up or lost <the sacrifices made by parents>
Conventional wisdom would accept these definitions, but they are both logically flawed and they contradict each other… Let’s take “a” first. What if you destroy something bad in favor of something good? According to this definition you have “sacrificed” even though you have yielded a net gain of value. Webster’s definition provides no value judgement and is, therefore, incomplete. For example, if you give up a bad job so you can take a better one is that a sacrifice? Of course not. You cannot have sacrifice without a hierarchy of values in place. The first definition should read: “destruction or surrender of something one values more in favor of something that one values less.” It is not a consistently usable definition without those parameters. It must involve a net loss of value. The contradiction comes in the first definition’s allowance for a net gain vs. the second one’s requirement for a loss.
How would this be applied? How does this understanding change the way we would think of sacrifice, or even better, how we live our lives?
Scenario 1: The Damsel in Distress Archetype
For as long as human’s have told stories, we have loved to hear of the “great sacrifice” of the handsome knight to save the woman he loves. Often risking great peril or even death in order to rescue the “Damsel in Distress.” (How many stories can you name in the comments?) Most would agree that the man dying for the woman is a sacrifice by any definition, and it may be by Webster’s first definition, but not by mine.
To love is to value highly. If the knight loves the woman, then he values her life. If he loves her enough, he may even value her life more than his own. If this is the case, he has not sacrificed. She is his highest value, and he has kept her alive. He is the winner. He has received a net gain.
I am fortunate to have found the love of my life who has given us two amazing children.
All three of them are of higher value to me than me. (I am actually welling up a bit as I type this, I feel so strongly about it.) Let me make this clear; I LOVE myself. My friends and family would agree that my ego is robust and healthy. Yet, I still value my family that highly. It is not out of self-hatred, but of profoundly understood love that I have ranked my values. If I was placed in the position of having to save any of their lives at the expense of my own, it would be the easiest possible choice, and NOT a sacrifice. If I were to die knowing that my family would have a chance at life, I would die feeling like the winner. (I would, of course be sad to go, but I value their lives higher than my own pain or sadness.) This willingness to die for my family is not sacrifice, but a profoundly selfish position that I would not want to live in a world where they were not provided the opportunity to live full lives.
Scenario 2: The “Sacrifices” Made By Parents
Now we will take Webster’s definition “b” and put through our filter.
b : something given up or lost <the sacrifices made by parents>
Here, we finally have a value judgement in the definition. Webster is getting warmer! For this scenario, I will focus on my daughter, Clara, simply because,
of my two children, she has been alive the longest… I love Clara with all my heart, as I explained above. I can’t think of one sacrifice that I have made for her. What kind of monster am I?! Again, consider my improved definition of “sacrifice.” Could I be spending more of the money I work very hard for on other things like cool gadgets, games, trips, wine, clothes, etc if I didn’t have to buy things for Clara? Of course. After all, she hasn’t earned any of that! Is that a sacrifice for my child? No! Clara being fed clothed and cared for is of MUCH higher value to me than those things, however fun they would be to have.
Could I have pursued more illustrious career avenues if I didn’t have two children?(or had remained single for that matter) Probably. Have I sacrificed my career for my family? No! I would not trade them because they are of higher value than any career advancement that I may have missed. I would argue that it is a negative quality for parents who sacrifice (under my definition) for their kids. Sometimes parents give up what they really want out a sense of duty to their offspring, and then make their kids feel guilty about all of their missed opportunities in life. Whether done intentionally or not, kids can absorb this guilt. Happy parents are more likely to raise happy children.
So then, what IS a sacrifice?
“destruction or surrender of something one values more in favor of something that one values less.”
A person who takes on a burden of any kind out of a sense of guilt or duty, instead of an adherence to their values.
Is it a sacrifice if I were to take the life bread from my own child’s mouth to feed my neighbor’s child? Yes. My own children are of higher value to me than my neighbor’s. (I know people don’t normally admit that out loud, but I am unapologetic about it. I think if most people are truly honest with themselves, they would agree.) But sharing my food with a starving neighbor if my children have what they need, is NOT a sacrifice.
I want to help if it is within my power. It is of a high value to me to see my neighbors happy as long as I have met the needs of my children. It furthers my values to live in a happy, healthy community. Giving to charity in general is not a sacrifice if done with this mentality. People tend to contribute to charities that further their own value system or support causes they find important. If you give to a charity because you feel like they are entitled to it, and get no joy from helping, then this is a sacrifice. Maybe find a different charity? There are many that need your help!
What’s the Point?
Having this clarity in my life helps me to live objectively. I try to look at every choice and personal interaction through this filter. Recently achieving this understanding has led to the happiest years of my life. When I have to put down something I enjoy to spend time with my kids, or save money I would like to spend on an iPad app, or give up the remote, so Beth can watch the show she wants, I see the happiness of my family which is my highest value. I am not bound by bitterness that eats me up as I think about what I have given up. I simply think of what I have gained instead of what I have lost. I become emotionally richer knowing that every decision I make, yields me a net gain in value. The opposite side of the coin is constant regret created by a focus on all of the things in my life I have missed out on. If I chose to think about my life that way, I would be filled with resentment. That’s a path we should avoid.
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Don’t surrender, don’t sacrifice, don’t give up.