There has ever been, and most certainly still stands to this day a romanticism of the heroic individual which sacrifices him or herself for another. And whether that other is a cause, person(s) or ideal, the fact remains that we are most unabashedly expected to laud such actions with all due respect and consideration.
We hear of our Military Service Members who “sacrificed themselves on the altar of humanity” or “a mother who sacrificed herself for her children” and are directed most vehemently to look upon such actions with awe and reverence. These acts of self-sacrifice are “pure” and “good” we are told. They represent the best of humanity and those that are willing to pay the ultimate price through their sacrifice should be shining examples for us all.
But I must in part disagree. I find the term, and the promotion of self-sacrifice a most despicable and abhorrent idea. This is not to say I disagree or impugn upon the respectability with the submissions of self which such individuals have given, but that the term sacrifice, or self-sacrifice as the case may be not only disrespects this gift of fatal proportions, but is most inappropriate by definition. When people so loosely fling around the word sacrifice, I cringe and think, “Sacrifice? I sincerely hope not!”
Traditionally, the term sacrifice was used to refer to an offering of goods or possessions, or the slaughtering of an animal or person to a divine or supernatural figure. Taken in this context, as many believers and theists do it would be a most benevolent action to sacrifice yourself for another. Protecting the life of another person, a created being, by the giving of your own is espoused as something which will allow you a free pass past those pearly gates.
If such sacrifice was the purest of acts, then there should be no fear of dying. To leave this mortal coil of sin and pain, for the afterlife of eternity with a loving and tender benefactor… why is this not done more often? If looked at from this perspective, sacrifice in fact means nothing. It becomes meaningless in a world with an afterlife, an eternal reward garnered from such actions. Why, people would be wandering the streets to step in the way of the knife, or the bullet meant to take the life of another if this were indeed true. If those who “believe” indeed gave it more credit than lip service, I think a large amount of the world’s population problem would be cleared up overnight.
But, as a non-believer and one who finds such ideology equally repugnant, the very notion of sacrifice to a “higher power” makes the very offering pointless. A most appropriate and affording definition to “sacrifice” in my opinion, the giving of something (or in the context of this article, everything) for (to) nothing. No, to those who give their lives in the ways in which they choose, it is far from meaningless.
In looser terminology and when not seen from a religiously spiritual aspect, sacrifice becomes self-sacrifice or altruistic abstinence. The more appropriate yet uncommon byword for this is self-denial, defined as the willingness to forgo personal pleasures or undergo personal trials in the pursuit of the increased good of another. For the purpose of the context in which we speak, this can be delineated further to the expression altruistic suicide. Think Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And when this concept
Regardless of definition, the distinct and very real promotion now-a-days of sacrifice is one of giving up everything (your life) for another. It is applauded, yet looked upon with sadness and remorse for those who knew the individual. So and so sacrificed his life for his fellow soldiers by jumping on a grenade. Lady such and such pushed her car off the road in time to get it out of the path of an oncoming truck that had lost control, saving her children at the cost of her own life. A teacher held a door shut while a madman rampaged at a school, enraging him to empty the last of his bullets through it and into the teacher but saving the children in the act.
Your terminology of sacrifice disgraces their actions. It does not do them justice, if their intentions were indeed true to form. Sacrifice has no place in the volume of such descriptions where such scenarios are concerned. These were strong individuals, full of fervor and conviction. To them, what they held dear, their comrades, their children, their students meant more to them than their lives. This ultimate of gifts, for that is what it is, is no sacrifice. It was a refusal to compromise their ideals, a steadfast show of support to their life’s accumulated principles and the notion that to them, some things are worth giving your life for.
It is, as always, my sincerest of wishes that those who commit themselves to such acts of selfish bravery that their very last breath is spent in the form of a thought. And that that thought gives them pause to smile internally and tell themselves, “Here I lay dying, yet I am content.” For it is a selfish act, of a most laudable kind that I have the greatest of respect for. An act that offers the ultimate form of payment for something they perceive to be of greater value. It is NOT a sacrifice, it is a not a loss. But a gain. A monumental show of selfishness which transcends anything that those who promote sacrifice could ever fathom.
Such actions take the form of a trade and to those consenting to such a course it is an increase in fortune, not a decrease. Though by its very nature, is not a treasure they will live to have the opportunity to spend. Rather it is something which they identify that, should the alternative come to pass the cost would be more than they could bear.
Indeed if you listen to older generations, those most wise of elderly individuals there is a common mantra among them. It is not the things they did which they regret, but that which they did not do. Or what they failed to do. And in some cases, it was the inability or inaction to save another, to offer their life in exchange for something which they now recognized to be more valuable than all the life spent from that time past to the present.
In the movie Braveheart, Mel Gibson portrays the Scottish rebel William Wallace and whilst speaking to an army of his countrymen before a battle, bolsters their resolve with the following;
“Fight and you may die. Run and you will live, at least awhile. And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for
one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!”
There is nothing innately noble in offering your life in exchange for another’s. Nobility, or the state of being noble is the promotion of decency and goodness through your actions, neither of which comes in an objectively universal package. Semantics aside, it goes against the first law of existence, that of self-preservation. To expect others to do this, or to follow such a course of action for anything other than purely selfish reasons is perhaps one of the most frightening and despicable of proclamations I can fathom.
This is why I will never sacrifice my life for another. Not for an ideal or a cause, or my wife or children. For to sacrifice myself would mean to devalue that which I hold most dear. To say that I expect the praise of a martyr, the victim, the sycophant of today.
But I would pay the highest of prices, my life, in exchange and in support of those few things which I feel are worth the charging of my existence. And as I hold no stock or trade in there being an afterlife, no grand garden in the sky or place of eternal reward my gift means all the more. For it is final and absolute. You may consider this to still be a sacrifice, in its own way. But I do not, and cannot feel the same. Sacrifice simply engages too many emotions involving blindness, indoctrination and tradition. A trade, an offer is not a sacrifice. A sacrifice, in all its connotations implies a loss, a lessening. Which if done from within this light quite obviously denotes a cheapening of that and those which it safeguards.
I cannot speak for you, but those I cherish are not cheap, and that which I hold dear is not for sale at a bargain bin price. Of all my possessions, my existence is my most valuable and final of offers. Should I be called upon to make the choice, to save those I love or stand for that which I find to be worthy of an uncompromising stance then I will sign upon that dotted line my life, and be content with the exchange. For there are indeed things worth giving your life for. But it is just that, a gift, of the most priceless variety. If only to the one who gives it.