Thoughts on Sacrifice

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
(Mary Oliver, The Journey)

Nick was working for an engineering consultancy, doing pretty well for himself. He got to work on some cool renewable energy projects, while still having the pleasure of a stable income. Yet at some point it wasn’t enough – Nick was realising that he was way down one end of the chain of causality, only able to implement the projects that had come so far they were basically going to happen regardless. He saw there was a need to pitch in at the other end – helping to make clean energy projects come into being that wouldn’t have otherwise. So, probably with some trepidation, he left his job, to volunteer his time working with other young people to demand action on climate change.

Emma studies a Bachelor of Science, expected completion in 2015. She has already ruled out studying honours in the subsequent year, as the ACT will face both a Federal and a Territory election in 2016, and Emma plans to spend all her time volunteering. She now hesitant about doing honours even after that – while she loves practising Science, Australia’s current lethargy on global warming may demand that she take a different path.

Myself – early last year, I was working for a progressive union. It was important work, and decently-remunerated. For the first time, my HECS debt began to decrease. Yet, in April I chose to move from Melbourne to Canberra to volunteer full-time on an election campaign to stop Tony Abbott getting complete control of the Senate. I moved out of my Carlton pad, sold my keyboard, packed my life in to a car boot, and drove West.

boxes in a car boot

It is a black day the day my life can’t fit into a 3-door coupe.

I recount these anecdotes as potential examples of what it means to sacrifice, because I think that this thing – a willingness to sacrifice – is the sine qua non for social movement success. That is, more and more it seems to me that the difference between success and failure is how much campaigners are willing to sacrifice, to give up things – time, opportunities, money – in pursuit of their goal.

Yet it would be shallow to view such “sacrifice” as being altruistic. On the contrary, these examples (and the broader phenomenon) are less about people losing something and more about people gaining something. In each case the person has moved on from something of less import, in order to act in a way more deeply reflective of their values. I know I felt ambivalent about my pending decision for some time, only finding resolution when I reflected upon who I wanted to be: a person for whom money or security is less valuable than the chance to change the world. While each of us “gave something up”, each of us was ultimately deciding who we were to become. This freedom, writes Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, “makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

Nor do I think such behaviour is magnaminous, deserving of praise or gratitude. It is a huge privilege to be able to dedicate oneself to a cause, to be free of concerns about one’s children, or security of person. Certainly, this activism is less a donation and more, as Alice Walker said, the rent paid simply to live upon this planet. Perhaps to put to the side one’s career, one’s goals, or one’s home, is less about giving something, and more about returning something – beginning to repay the huge debt that privilege brings.

Ultimately, this concept interests me because of the juxtaposition of our concept of sacrifice with the reality of putative sacrifice. In the many cases I’ve witnessed of people forgoing something to devote themselves to a cause, I’ve seen the people grow richer and more fulfilled, finding a meaning and wealth in their life that wasn’t hitherto present. Dorothy McRae-McMahon describes a similar thing, witnessing lives that move “from being passive, from being formed by others and by life itself, to being active and even passionate.”

McRae-McMahon also describes how some “live with what is, and imagine nothing more”. I’ve seen people hesitate to seize opportunities to act out their values, and there are many reasons for this. I don’t judge such behaviour, but I do perhaps pity it. For while it could be said that the former group sacrifices “success”, what they gain is meaning. In fact, I would argue that to accept the status quo is to sacrifice: to plunge a dagger into the heart of your yearnings, that society’s demands may be assuaged.

im looking in to a pool of water which reflects the sky

Reflecting on the sky

Life is perhaps less a struggle to discover meaning, and more a struggle to discern meaning. We are told so often what our life should be about, what it means to be successful, what it takes to be happy, that the difficulty in answering such questions is not due to the lack of answers, but the excess. The blessing, then, is that the right voice is normally speaking, though inaudible, and to hear it requires not supernatural hearing, but patience, and the ability to filter out and turn off the cacophonous advertisements for richer, bigger, faster, fancier.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,

“Life,” writes Viktor Frankl, “ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” This doesn’t mean you have to bestride the narrow world like a Colussus: Frankl gives an examples of someone who finds actualization in the opportunity to be a devoted carer for a disabled child. What it does mean, is that life expects something of you. Nobody other than you knows what that might be. And to sacrifice something in fulfilling that expectation is not to lose an asset but to remove a liability: to blow away the clouds so that the stars may burn through.


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