by Monim Wains
Those who are selfless, who give to others, in some way or another, are worthy of respect, or so we think. The epitome of such people is those who sacrifice their whole lives to protect something worthwhile. We admire and respect their courage, celebrate their spirit with great monuments and ceremonies. What is it that we actually respect? Surely, their loss isn’t good.
Yet, sacrifice needs loss – intentional loss – for the greater good (whatever that may be). Is loss something to celebrate? If you were to create a new world, a utopia where things were perfect, would you have loss? It would be difficult to justify a utopia that needed it, Yet utopias should have everything that is good, and sacrifice is good, commendable even. How do we make sense of this contradiction?
Let’s consider the acts of sacrifice that we celebrate more closely. We find the heroes of war who laid down their lives a hundred years ago during this month. We find philanthropists who have given away millions to make a permanent difference to thousands of lives. We find volunteers who give up their time to help the less fortunate. In short, we find, in fact, problems. We find issues that lie at the heart of society, from the greatest theatres of war to the locals desperate for aid. We would wish, I hope, that this would never be the case. We should wish, in fact, for sacrifice to never exist.
In an ideal world, no one would sacrifice anything, because there would be no need to take on suffering so that others may be relieved of their problems. It is important to remember this. Sacrifice is a reaction to a problem so great that our normal means of solving it have failed, and, in desperation, we have found ourselves willing to give up what we value for the sake of helping others.
It is necessary to clarify exactly what is good and exactly what is bad here. I am in no way dismissing or challenging the goodness of those who make sacrifices for the good of others. In fact, I would wholeheartedly agree, and do genuinely believe, that any serious change and improvement in our world is built upon some level of personal cost. And I know, in all spheres of life, just how often and how easily we overlook the sacrifices that are made.
The war-medic who rushes into danger to save the stranded is no doubt deserving of the highest honour, as are those who spare the smallest of change for the homeless when that is all they have. We should, of course, celebrate them. But we should make clear that we do not celebrate or glorify or even approve of the maladies they are having to fix. Within the contradiction, we should see the graveness of the problem, and celebrate the goodness of the defiant.
That is to say, there is nothing fully good in charity, martyrdom, and sacrifice of the like. The situations that led to those acts deserve remorse and sadness. What there is, is courage and principle, the strength to do what is right above what is beneficial for oneself. That, no doubt, deserves praise. That, I suppose, is the contradiction. Meaningful progress needs sacrifice, and it is progress that will never be complete. Our ambition though, should point towards a world with peace and prosperity, without sacrifice.
We should rightly admire the historical heroes who gave their all for our world, but we should hope for a future when they are nothing but legend, and sacrifice is killed.