The Student Side: The Forgotten Importance of Self-Sacrifice

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Sacrifice; you get to pick your damn sacrifice, that’s all. You don’t get to not make one. You’re sacrificial whether you want to be or not.” 

-Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, professor emeritus of Clinical Psychology, University of Toronto 

Each year, the Roman Catholic Church observes the season of Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday,  Catholics enter a time of prayer, penance and fasting that lasts for 40 days, before ending on the Thursday before Easter, known as Holy Thursday.

The 40 days of sacrifice is in imitation of Jesus Christ, who after his baptism, spent 40 days alone in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by the devil to mentally and spiritually prepare himself to begin his earthly ministry.  

Well, Ash Wednesday was this week, and you might have seen me or some of my Catholic brothers and sisters wearing our ashes, even if you didn’t receive any yourself.  

But why do we do it? Why do I and millions of people across the world willfully engage in a holiday that commands us to give up the things we love for such a long time? Many give up certain foods, drinks, entertainment and pastimes that they enjoy.  

Without getting too spiritual, the answer is that it makes what we do afterward more meaningful because of what we sacrificed in preparing for it, just as Christ did.  

Why else would we do it? We live in a world that encourages the opposite of sacrifice at every opportunity. Every commercial makes the same promise: what if we could work less, pay less or worry less? What if we could give less of ourselves and simultaneously get more out of life?  

I’m afraid it doesn’t quite work that way. Sacrifice, the conscious act of giving up things that matter to you, is non-negotiable. It happens whether we want it to or not. The difference is how much we choose to give and when we choose to give it. And, unsurprisingly, the more and sooner you give, the more and sooner you get it back.  

Of course, there’s much more to sacrifice than that. The way I’ve described sacrifice makes it seem identical to putting money in a bank and waiting for it to build interest. And while that is true to an extent, it misses what I believe to be the most important benefit of sacrifice: the fostering of gratitude in the human heart.  

Sacrifice is the ultimate expression of gratitude and thankfulness for everything that you have. That’s why we sacrifice time to help our friends and families or sacrifice money to buy them expensive presents. We want to show them how much we value the sacrifices they make for us. 

Without gratitude, there can be no happiness. What is happiness but gratitude? Acknowledgment of one’s good fortune, even and especially when we feel unfortunate, is what creates and sustains happiness in all people. Without constant gratitude, and sacrifice as a way to show that gratitude through our actions, all our happiness is fleeting and empty. 

But if sacrifice is so rewarding, how come so few of us engage in it routinely? The answer, as in many cases, is because it’s hard. We don’t want to give up the things we want or enjoy. Many people think it’s enough to say they’re thankful and leave it at that, without ever actually having to put anything on the line to prove it. How can anyone claim to believe a person who isn’t willing to sacrifice something to prove it? 

However, this is rarely a natural state of mind. Sometimes, our sacrifices turn against us. We can sacrifice time, money, energy or comfort, all for our efforts to have negative consequences. These experiences are upsetting and frustrating because they feel so unfair. It’s like putting $50 worth of quarters in a slot machine and still losing. Most people can only take so much of that before they resolve to stop trying, only putting in one quarter at a time. Sure it might be safer, but it’s a lot duller, and your winnings won’t feel deserved. They’ll be expected. You’ll feel entitled to them. And entitlement is the opposite of gratitude.  

Life is what you make of it. You can be an active participant where you make things happen by sacrificing yourself to make them so. Sometimes it works out and it’s great or sometimes it doesn’t and it hurts. But you can also be a spectator. You can let life happen to you, putting in the minimum amount of effort because it’s easier in the moment. The hurt doesn’t hurt as bad but the good is almost nonexistent because you didn’t earn it.  

That’s why to all readers, whether you celebrate Lent or not, I pose a challenge. If you feel like you’ve become a spectator and that your sense of gratitude has dulled, go out and make a new sacrifice. Think of someone you value and do something nice for them. It might be inconvenient for you, even unpleasant, and they might not react how you want them to. But that’s all a part of it. Show someone you care by sacrificing the time and energy to do so.

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