An old sage once observed that, “the greatest sacrifice is when you sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of someone else.” The modern age isn’t so sure of that principle anymore. The term “sacrifice” summons up thoughts of loss, pain, foregoing of resources, even life itself. Our daily lives cater more to the concept of self-improvement and our economic choices frequently reflect that reality. We aim too low.
It remains one of the great ironies of modern life that our heroes are frequently those whose lives barely resemble ours. When Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai visited Ottawa this past week, it was something like a spiritual event. We understood what she had given up in order to raise her voice for the cause of others. Shot in the head for taking a stand, she somehow survived and the power of her sacrificial life humbled young and old, politician and citizen alike.
I recently asked some of my friends who their heroes were. They came from various age groups but their responses were revealing, and strikingly similar: Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Romeo Dallaire, Malala, and pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. There was little mention of leaders like Steve Jobs or Bill and Melinda Gates, though there remains much appreciation for their efforts. Something about the remarkable price paid by people like Mandela, or even Jesus Christ, provides a higher, more refined, definition of sacrifice.
There are various types of sacrifice, of course, ranging from the giving of gifts to a mother’s remarkable devotion, and these things matter to a great enough degree that they benefit society even when largely unacknowledged. But there is a special place we reserve for those who risked it all for the betterment of humanity. Even most of those – soldiers dying in war, for example – remain anonymous. Yet every year we acknowledge what it all means and that we somehow benefitted for the path of devotion that they walked.
The underlying principle of great sacrifice is that the persons paying the cost place greater value on the recipient than themselves. We acknowledge that. But there is more. Somehow that height of a person’s sacrifice creates an intimate bond between giver and receiver. It spans the centuries and doesn’t even require acquaintance with the person. We see it every Remembrance Day, when an entire nation bows its collective head in profound acknowledgement of the men and women who gave their lives so that our lives stood a chance to continue. In effect, it is a bond, a promise if you will, that we will continue to acknowledge what has been done and what we owe.
The greatest effect of this bond is that it protects the relationship and keeps the act of sacrifice sacred over time. Intriguingly, the relationship becomes reciprocal – we honour one another, not out of duty, but from honest devotion. It can last a lifetime, or lifetimes, as the legacy endures.
These words a being written on Easter Sunday morning – an enduring annual celebration on how death ultimately provides life. Billions over the millennia have acknowledged the ultimate sacrifice without ever having known Jesus Christ. It remains an act of ultimate humanity that people can love and appreciate someone they have never known.
The only real hope for our age is that we get beyond ourselves and our immediate needs, to reach for greater things, the bigger life, the enlarged spirit, so that humanity itself can survive. For this we require examples, living and dead, of those who transcended daily concerns in order to give our humanity a fighting chance to prevail. It is the quality of their lives, their essence of doing ultimate good, that reminds us that there is always more that can be done, more people that can be helped, more hope for the world. It is as Martin Luther King Jr. observed and lived:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Thank God such people still strive in our world. Would to God that there were more of them.