The other day I got into a discussion on the internet. This happens. I thought it was a kind of dialogue, and then later realized it was a pair of overlapping monologues. This also happens. It happens a lot when a conversation revolves around a single word or a group of words: try freedom, for example. People can talk for hours about freedom, each carefully listening to the other and responding sensibly. Then later they discover that not for one minute were they talking about the same thing. One was talking about postive freedom and the other about _negative freedom, See Isaac Berlin: Two Concepts of Liberty for the full, classic treatment
In this case, the word was sacrifice. I had outlined a course of action and described it as a sacrifice. I thought that using that word would point us toward a shared understanding of the meaning and potential value of the act. That’s why words exist. They are not just sounds or sequences of letters, but pointers to packages of ideas that provide the word’s meaning. But the word sacrifice has a second sense, one that I had not considered. He was considering the action I’d proposed according to one definition of sacrifice; I according to another. This happened.
So what is sacrifice, and why did I think it was such a good idea? A tour of online dictionaries and some deep reflection made it clear. I think it’s a good idea because I’m a recent convert, and like every convert, I’m overly enthusiastic about my new religion.
In my post, Whatever it takes I said:
I am willing to do whatever it takes to do as little as possible to seem to have worked hard to appear to have achieved whatever I can manage to get away with. And you can count on that!
In this one, written at DW**2’s in February, Doing the hard stuff, I was reflecting on my decision not to take a cold shower that morning:
As I got ready to leave and walked there, I realized that I was avoiding things that I deeply believe would be good for me, but don’t do because they’re uncomfortable.
Things have changed.
It’s taken a lot of work, but here I am, not quite a year later, deliberately doing things that are uncomfortable—but which I believe will be good for me. I get up early and do the things that I think will make me better. I take my cold shower. I clean up. I do my writing. I exercise. I meditate. I’ve gotten rid of things that waste my time. I’ve ditched Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook from all my devices. I’ve turned off Google’s news feed. I’m making my office a comfortable place. I’m volunteering to do things in the community that I’ve lived in for nearly 20 years.
There’s still a part of me that seeks comfort. There’s a part that hates getting up in the morning. There’s a part that hates taking cold showers. There’s a part that wants to read the news. But they don’t run my life the way that they used to. Indeed, according to Internal Family Systems theory, those parts are remnants of Past Me, still stuck in the past and suffering. Instead of fighting them, I’m learning to listen, to be grateful—they got me here after all—and for forgiveness.
In October I did The Stoic challenge and found a philosophic system that I’ve been looking for, all worked out, tested, and packaged up.
I’ve learned that it’s my job to always do my best and not complain about what I get in return. It’s nice to get something nice in return from other people, but that’s now why I do what I do. As much as possible I do what I do because I believe it’s the right thing to do.
I had been learning the lessons of the Stoics on my own. Now I was ready to embrace them. My job is to make myself the best person that I can. It’s my job. And it cannot be done without sacrifice.
Sometimes I’m still a selfish dick, way less than when I was young, but sometimes I am. I don’t think that’s ever the right thing to do and I keep working to be less selfish and less dickish. Why be selfish with the people I care about? I’m living in abundance! Why be a dick? It’s just a bad habit.
Sacrifice, the noun, has multiple meanings, but the relevant one is: “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.” If it’s more important or worthy, then the decision should be easy. You do it.
For years I tried to improve myself without sacrifice. I was willing to do work to grow, but not too much work. Not to the point of discomfort. I kept looking for a way around it. Now I accept that there is no way around it. And more: even if there was a way around it, I’m not sure I’d want it Part of the value of something is the price you’re willing to pay. I’m glad that I’m doing what I’m doing—this blog post, for example. And I’m happy that I’m willing to pay the price—to earn it by hard work.
Sacrifice is another paradox, like the paradoxes of gratitude and forgiveness you give something up and you get more in return.
There are limits, of course. You can’t sacrifice what you need to survive. And it’s easier to sacrifice from abundance then poverty. But when I can make a sacrifice, I find myself getting more than I’ve given. It’s not just the greater good for which I’ve sacrificed. It’s not a feeling of pride, but something else. Maybe sacrifice is tied to forgiveness. I don’t know. I just know that it feels that I’ve gained more than I’ve given.
Back to Peterson again:
Error necessitates sacrifice to correct it, and serious error necessitates serious sacrifice. To accept the truth means to sacrifice—and if you have rejected the truth for a long time, then you’ve run up a dangerously large sacrificial debt.
Maybe that’s what’s going on. Perhaps the mistakes of my life constitute a dangerously large sacrificial debt, and I’m just paying it down.
Stay tuned, I may understand it someday, and if I do, I’ll share it.