Sacrifice: The Price We Pay and the Power of Suffering Well

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Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers, and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.

Therese of Lisieux

Walking across the dry field, I was struck by the quiet in the air and the expansive openness of clear views in all directions. The wind was persistent and refreshing. The sky was clear, deep blue, and the sun beautifully inescapable. We stood in a small, triangle-shaped corner carved out of a larger field showing the first small soybean plants in perfectly ordered rows – waves of green breaking the brown lifelessness of the dirt in all directions. This is the home of Felicity, Sally’s slice of heaven on earth, soon to be brought to life in a kaleidoscope of colorful flowers.

Though quite modest in size, the magnitude of the little corner of field grows significantly as one begins to work in the soil, laying out the rows, preparing it for planting, and then physically placing the seeds. We toiled for a few hours in one of the beds: sweating, lifting, bending, digging, and sometimes crawling to complete the planting of the tiny seeds. It was demanding. It was work. It could be tedious. It was sometimes uncomfortable. And, It was gloriously joyful.

The word “sacrifice” is a combination of two latin words encompassing the notions of something “set apart” and “to make or do.” Human history is marked by sacrifice as mankind’s attempts to restore a right relationship with the divine, seek favor for events beyond our control, and give thanks for blessings. Frequently, offerings were made of animals and the word is imbued with the bloody connotations of the taking of life in offering to something greater. Today, the notion of a sacrificial offering is abhorrent to our modern sensibilities but the practices appeared broadly and consistently around the world. From the very beginning, we intuited a price attached to our hopes, dreams, ambitions, and fears.

Though we have moved on (mostly) from of such practices, we still recognize the necessity of sacrifice in our modern existence. There is a kind of “spiritual physics” that surrounds the notion of sacrifice. A cause and effect set of rules commanding the prices that must be paid for our aspirations. Today, we sacrifice in different ways in accordance with what must be given, or given up, to attain our ends.

For those farming, the hard work of sowing must precede the reaping of the harvest. The farmer sacrifices her time, energy, and money for the downstream benefit of the yield. The parent sacrifices his time, energy, and money to raise his children. The entrepreneur sacrifices her time, energy and money for the possibility of her venture. The medical student sacrifices his time, energy, and money for the opportunity to be a physician. In each case, we know that our gratification must be delayed to achieve our ends. Though we rarely consider the physics of such sacrifices, we recognize their necessity and understand their precepts: I must give something up – pay the price – for anything I want.

Often, the sacrifices we make are not glorious. Frequently, they are small, persistent, and unsatisfying. We can easily view the daily struggles to move forward as a battle against an endless stream of barriers and indignities heaped upon our weary selves. Our greater mission gets lost in those struggles and we rail against the suffering we are forced to endure on our way to any destination. Somewhere along the way, we are convinced that if we have to wait, it isn’t easy, or it is painful, something is wrong. We begin to see our own martyrdom in our sacrifices and they become unendurable.

Driving to that field, my mind wandered across a dozen things that sounded more entertaining and required far less effort. Walking into that bare field, I took a deep breath and thought “this is going to be work.” Standing in that hot sun, I thought: “poor me, I don’t wanna.” And there, I could have stayed for several hours and endured the torture, sacrificing myself on my own altar of self-pity. The spiritual physics would have kicked-in and I would have suffered, felt the misery, and resented the sacrifice.

But I didn’t. I got to work instead. I gave myself to the effort. I surrendered to the tasks and something strange happened. I fell in love: with that field, with the effort, with the price, and with the sacrifice. I became hungry to see those flowers sprout, then bloom. The suffering I anticipated turned into joy. The difficulties brought satisfaction and the discomforts became their own reward. A price well-paid. A sacrifice worth making. And then, it didn’t seem like a sacrifice at all. Working that field and planting those seeds felt urgent, necessary, and fulfilling. Looking at Sally, sweating, tired, and beautiful, I experienced the completeness of the sacrifice and the power of suffering well.

You are walking into a world today that is extraordinarily beautiful and incredibly demanding. Our days are not easy. We may have evolved from the sacrifice of animals to appease our deities, but the spiritual physics still exist. Life demands sacrifices from us and they are often ones we don’t really want to make. Even when we see the path clearly, we still stumble, resist, delay, and resent the price demanded. And sometimes, that price will be far higher than a few hours of sweat in a field. Though we can’t always see it, there is purpose in the sacrifice and there can be beauty, even joy, in the suffering.

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