Every Action Requires Sacrifice

By Adam J. Pearson

The word ‘sacrifice’ often gives rise to powerful images and strong emotions when we hear it.  We think of Jesus sacrificing himself for the sins of humankind, or of lambs slaughtered as sacrifices to deities, or of the Aztec practice of human sacrifice.  On the more mundane level, we think of the sacrifices we make in daily life: to give up junk food in order to lose weight, to sacrifice money in order to buy things we like, to sacrifice time we could spend on our career in order to be present for our children.  However, I argue that sacrifices are not a rare exception that we experience from time to time; no, sacrifice is a feature of all actions whatsoever.  Every action requires sacrifice. Allow me to explain what I mean by that.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ‘sacrifice’ traces its history to Latin roots in the 13th century. “Sacra’ meant ‘sacred’ and ‘facere’ meant “to do or perform.” A ‘sacrifice,’ then was originally a sacred performance, a ritual transaction of giving something up in return for the favour of a deity.  In the 1590s, ‘sacrifice’ acquired a broader meaning; it came to mean “giving something up for the sake of another thing.” In short, it came to mean a ‘trade’ or an ‘exchange.’  When we sacrifice something, we give up something that is valuable to us in exchange for something else.  If we give up something that means nothing to us, this is not sacrifice; sacrifice implies that we are giving up something valuable.

From the human perspective, then, I argue that every action we choose requires us to make a sacrifice.  The reason behind this claim is that completing any action requires  an interval of time in which to complete the task (which may vary from a second to decades). When we do anything, we use up some of our time.  This is not a trivial point; it affects us very deeply because what we ultimate sacrifice whenever we choose to do anything is a portion of our lifespan.  We trade some of our time on the Earth, some of our life, in exchange for the time we need to do whatever it is we choose to do.

This realization is important because it puts things into perspective.  It is easy to spend hours on Facebook or in front of the TV or in unnecessary tasks when we are doing so simply out of habit.  However, when we see that we are trading in part of our lifespan to do the things we opt to do, we tend to think more carefully about what these actions are worth.  Are they worth the time I could devote to other things? Do I really need to read this Facebook comment or watch this episode of Dancing With the Stars? What could I be doing instead? Deciding how to spend our time ultimately boils down to asking what is my life worth? How can I best use my little bit of time on this planet? What do I think is worth doing? These are big questions, but they are important ones to ask if we wish to live a full, meaningful life rather than an unconscious, autopilot kind of life where we do everything automatically without reflecting on what we do on a daily basis.

Socrates once said that “the unreflective life is not worth living.” When we don’t reflect on how we are trading in our lifespan in order to do various things throughout our day, we live unreflective lives.  The danger of such lives is that we may find ourselves on our deathbed, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Illyich, feeling that we have lived our entire lives and yet never really lived at all, that death has come and we have wasted our precious moments of life on useless things that we never really cared much about.  We want to live lives that we can look back upon on our deathbeds and smile with satisfaction.  These lives are reflective lives with many powerful effects and profound memories and few regrets.

I invite you to take up this question in your own life and think about how you choose to spend your time, asking yourself:

What actions will I sacrifice my lifespan for today? How will I use the little time I have in this incredible universe? 


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