Previous generations had a certain sense of sacrifice which, for better and for worse, we have all but lost.
In my parents’ generation, to offer just one kind of example, it was not that uncommon for someone in a family to forgo his or her own private ambitions in order to stay at home and take care of an aging or sick parent. For years that person would put his or her own life on hold while essentially he or she lived for someone else.
Very often, by the time the parent died, it was too late for that person to build the kind of life that might have been possible—marriage, children, a career—if circumstances had not so conscripted him or her to do this family duty.
Today we no longer see virtue in that kind of self-sacrifice. On the contrary, we tend to frown upon it and judge it negatively, as a failure of nerve, a tragedy, the waste of a life!
Our own assessment of what is virtue and what is lack of nerve and simple timidity tends to suggest that real virtue and real lives be dictated by circumstance and the demands of others. Today, for the most part, it is considered a tragedy to have missed out on any of life’s opportunities because we were, due to external demands, unfree to actualize them.
But is this always a tragedy? Could it not sometimes be altruistic virtue? Might self-fulfilment, genuine individuation, and real meaning lie, at times, in precisely this kind of self-abnegation?
Might not the cause of some of our current difficulties in keeping our marriages, families and communities together be the breakdown of this kind of self-sacrifice?
My own hunch is that while this kind of self-sacrifice was sometimes more timidity than virtue, it, many other times, was an expression of the kind of displacement that real love asks for. Moreover, this kind of sacrifice is, in the end, the cornerstone of family and community life.
The person who so sacrificed herself for another, for the family, perhaps did lack the nerve to live her own life. Perhaps, by living for a parent, she did remain always a child, not really grown up.
Irrespective of whether that is true, she, on the other hand, did recognize something that today, for all our adultness, we often don’t perceive, namely, that in this life we are essentially interdependent. We owe: our lives are not just our own. There is a transpersonal agenda that is larger than our own private needs, ambitions, loves and wounds. We have duties as well as rights.
In John’s Gospel, when Jesus calls Peter, he asks him three times: “Simon Peter, do you love me?” Each time, Peter assures Jesus that he does.
Jesus then says: “I tell you solemnly, Peter, up to now you have girded your belt and walked wherever you wanted. Now, because you have said this, others will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.”
St. Paul, at his conversion, is taught roughly the same lesson: He opens his heart to Christ and asks him what he, Paul, should now do. Christ then gives him the first lesson of both Christianity and of love.
Paraphrased, Christ’s answer might read something like this: “To have opened your heart in this way is to lose your freedom. Your life is no longer your own. Your blindness right now is simply an indication of that.
“Someone will now take you by the hand and lead you into Damascus where someone else will come and tell you how much you will have to suffer for what you just opened your heart to.”
For both Peter and Paul, their real encounter with love amounted to a derailment. From then on, and this was their baptism, their own private agendas were no longer that important.
It can be very helpful, both psychologically and religiously, to know this.
In our Western world today there are thousands of women and men, often in their 40s or 50s, who are lying on psychiatric and counselling couches and telling their therapists: “I’ve never had a chance to live my own life! It seems like I’ve always had to live for others, sacrificing what I wanted out of life. It was either my family, or my spouse, or my kids, or m y church, or my community . . . always the demands of others! I’ve never really had the chance to live for myself!”
On the one hand, that can seem like a tragedy. You never got to live your own life!
On the other hand, it is perhaps better at the age of 40 or 50 to be frustrated or in therapy, lamenting how much you have had to do for others, than living in the smug assurance that you were always able to do everything “my way!”