If you’d like to get a good fight going in a room full of diverse people, start talking about self-sacrifice. The group will break down into two sides that will not only disagree with each other, but despise each other.
On one side will be people who have strong beliefs in higher powers. That is, they will be religious or patriotic in some fashion, or at least strongly cause-oriented. They will believe that sacrificing one’s life (or at least their comfort) for a higher cause is something important and noble… something to fight for.
On the other side will be people who try to be very rational. They will think the sacrificers are either silly or deranged, hoping that some invisible entity will reward them for pouring their lives down a drain… something to fight against.
This kind of ideological food fight has been going on for a long time. The first group concludes that the second has no soul, and the second group concludes that the first has no brain. And of course, the longer the argument goes, the more polarized the room becomes.
Honestly, both sides are missing the important stuff. But before I get to that, I should clear away some debris.
Words Do Hurt Us
The word “sacrifice” is so strongly attached to emotional triggers that it’s almost useless at the present time. In fact, most of the words that are attached to this subject lead people toward kneejerk reactions rather than understanding.
Sacrifice can currently mean anything from “standing up for the truth” (a good thing, in my view) to “dying to give your ruler a few more acres to dominate” (not a good thing, in my view). So, this is our first problem area.
On top of that, there are always a few people who like self-sacrifice for odd psychological reasons, or just for sympathy. I am excluding them from this conversation to keep the discourse uncluttered. I’m also excluding the “suffering is a virtue” folks.
A related issue is the popular phrase, “Be part of something larger than yourself.” People try to mean something good by this, but it’s actually a perverse trade: You get some cheap self-esteem in return for joining yourself to something big and/or revered.
This trade—at a minimum—delays your personal development and turns you into an object that will be used by the “larger” thing.
Self-esteem is not supposed to come easy—it has to be earned, and that takes both time and effort. Joining yourself to a large entity delays or derails that process.
What we’re calling selfish-sacrifice is not a new concept (it was formerly called “suffering for righteousness’ sake”), but it has been pushed aside by “self-sacrifice,” which is now held (falsely) as a standard of goodness.
Selfish-sacrifice occurs when we act on our own desires and suffer unjustly for it. It is based upon a selfish valuing and defense of our own lives, not laying them down.
I’ll illustrate this concept by sharing a conversation that I had not long ago, with a good friend, whom I’ll call John. John has close connections to certain agencies, and he was concerned about the privacy service that I manage. Here’s how it went:
John: Look, I understand what you’re doing, and I understand why you’re doing it, but you have to know that they won’t like it.
Paul: Yeah, I know, but we can’t be very high on their list. Our customers are doctors, lawyers, investors, farmers, and accountants… regular people. And nothing we do is illegal.
John: I know that, Paul, but you’re protecting people from them, and they don’t like that. If you make them angry, they’ll find ways to get you. They’ll put something nasty on your computer… maybe it’ll be child porn or the blueprints for a bomb or something… and then they’ll make you look like a monster. I won’t believe it, and your other friends won’t believe it, but most people will. I don’t want that to happen to you.
Paul: I appreciate your concern, John, really, and I have no desire to be hurt. But I’ve reached the point where I want to live my life, and this matters. So, I’m doing it.
John: Well, I respect that, but I worry.
John is a good man and a good friend, and it’s sick that he has to worry about me. But if the other choice is to not live my life, I am unwilling to take it. I don’t want to suffer, but if it happens that I do… well… then it does.
Selfish-sacrifice comes from convictions like this: when we value our lives too much to not live them. We understand that thugs may take offense and try to punish us for doing good, but abandoning the best within ourselves is simply not worth it.
So long as most people obey rulers whom they know to be liars and thieves, we’ll be stuck in a risk environment. The only way to fix that is to address people’s minds: to convince them to think on their own and to stop serving people who abuse them.
In this situation, bowing to immediate pragmatism is to retard our own development. That would be the proverbial “selfless sacrifice”… the sacrifice of the best within us upon the altars of punishers.
Yes, I know that we all make certain compromises in order to avoid spending most of our lives in cages (How’s that for a condemnation of our times?), but still, these principles stand:
We should value our lives enough to live them.
So long as we don’t harm others, we should be free to do as we please.
Selfish-sacrifice happens when we value our lives, when we live them, and when power-mongers hurt us for it. It’s not something we seek, but in the current environment, it does sometimes happen. I tend to call this “suffering for your virtues.”
Words from a Man with Experience
I leave you today with three thoughts from a man who knew something about what I’m calling "selfish-sacrifice": Martin Luther King, Jr. We should all take these passages from Dr. King’s writings seriously:
Cowardice asks the question: is it safe?
Expediency asks the question: is it politic?
Vanity asks the question: is it popular?
But conscience asks the question: is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.
We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”
A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.
This article was originally published by Casey Research.