02/26/2011 01:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What It Means to Sacrifice

In his powerful essay, "Spiritual Laws," Ralph Waldo Emerson made what seems like an outrageous statement: "If, in the hours of clear reason, we should speak the severest truth, we should say that we had never made a sacrifice." He prefaces the assertion with two conditions: clear reason and severest truth. Nonetheless, the claim for its validity still seems out of bounds.

All of us can look at our lives and count the times we thought we had made a sacrifice -- that is, giving up our personal desires to meet the needs of others. Isn't that what sacrifice means? How about the first responders who give up their lives to save others? Isn't that a sacrifice? We call it that. How about the parents of a sick child, who sacrifice their own happiness, or individuals who sacrifice their personal lives to care for aged parents? Isn't this sacrifice?

The dictionary tells us that the noun "sacrifice" means "the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim." The key here is the phrase "a more pressing claim." That is what Emerson is really talking about.

In fact, we make this choice all the time without really thinking of it as a sacrifice. We simply make a choice where we see a more pressing claim, but then that notion begs the question, "What constitutes a more pressing claim?" It is here that Emerson asks us, in the light of clear reason, to consider what "pressing claim" really means.

What Emerson is after here is for us to see clearly what it means to make a choice to respond to a higher claim and then to see clearly how we react to that choice with feelings of anger and resentment. Too often we hold on to that anger and resentment and direct it to what we consider its source: the higher claim -- in this case, the sick child or the helpless parent. What gets lost is the choice itself -- the moment when we responded with compassion and love to that higher claim, perhaps giving up what we thought of as our personal comfort and happiness.

Seen this way, how can doing the right thing be a sacrifice? Deep down, or in Emerson's clear light of reason, we know what that right thing is, and we make our choice accordingly, and just perhaps, we can then say we have never made a sacrifice. Life presents us with "higher claims" all the time, and when we respond to them with an open heart, no sacrifice is ever made.

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