Friday, January 28, 2005

The Ultimate Sacrifice

I guess I must have heard and read the word 'sacrifice' one too many times this week. Frankly, that pisses me off. I make sacrifices for my family whenever I need to. It is not a burden, in that context. It is something I do out of duty and love and honour.

It is not something I owe to anyone else.

And every time I hear another social engineer or academic use the word 'share,' or see the word in print in yet another article exhorting us all not to be so selfish, I recognize that they don't really want me to pay my fair share; they really want me to sacrifice some of what is mine so it can become theirs instead.

As John Stossel says: "Give me a break."

Rather than write a new rant on how I feel about sacrifice, permit me to introduce a 'letter' to my son on the topic. I wrote it several years ago, when he was nine or ten years old, in response to a question of his about sacrifice.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Dear Zachary:

This letter to you is a tough one to write. You ask such complicated questions of me and I hate to resort to glib responses. Simply tossing off some patronizing kaka that doesn’t fully answer your questions isn’t acceptable. I like to take the time to think about your questions and why you ask them. I guess that’s a good thing; it certainly keeps me on my toes. I believe that, as a parent, it’s my job to help you think yourself through these issues. So I do my best. It is a privilege to be able to share our thoughts and concerns and I will treasure these times as long as I live.

Oh... Your question was: “Daddy, if everyone in the world was about to die and I could save everyone by sacrificing myself, would I have to do it? What about if it was only my own family? What about if it was the whole universe?”

When you posed those questions to me a few weeks ago, we spent a lot of time talking about self-sacrifice. We also talked about human potential, the relative worth of one life versus many lives and any other relevant things I could think about at the time. Here, in this letter to you, I’m going to try to set things down in a more linear and hopefully organized fashion.

The supreme (pardon the pun) example of self-sacrifice is the story of Jesus Christ. Whether one believes that God exists and that Jesus Christ was his son is irrelevant here because the example could be made as easily with any father (even me) and son (even you.) One might argue that God, Jesus’ father, sacrificed His son by allowing Him to be crucified and that Jesus himself didn’t have much to say about it. The Bible says “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” I don’t remember if Jesus was consulted or not but he certainly, according to the Bible, went along with God’s plan willingly. His only moment of doubt and despair appeared to be when he was crucified and he called out: “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

If we postulate that the story is true, for argument’s sake, was Jesus’ sacrifice worth it? Is the world a better place today because of it? Are people any smarter, more considerate, less hateful than they were some two thousand years ago? Or is that not the point?

Jesus died, according to the Bible, so that we could have everlasting life in Heaven, not a better life on earth. Aha! I think I get it now. So if we live a moral, honest, pious life, we will go to heaven and live forever. If we stray along the way or make no effort at all to live a righteous life, we will still live forever, but in a less inviting place, Hell. Nasty place, if one believes the biblical descriptions.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Your question asks not whether your self- sacrifice can save the world and everyone in it so they can have everlasting life, presumably in Heaven, but rather to live out the rest of their natural days on earth with whatever individual futures each might expect. Some individuals would die seconds after your sacrifice, due to any one of a million things that will kill us all eventually -- sickness, accident, old age, whatever. Others would live out their lives in misery, not having enough to eat, caught in a loveless marriage, or just living a meaningless existence that comes of not having anything to do. Some of these people might actually have welcomed an early death and you could well have saved yourself the trouble of dying on their behalf.

But what about the rest of the people? Consider those that are happy, well-adjusted, responsible, hard-working, kind, considerate, loving. Shouldn’t they have the right to live out their lives without interference? Sure, they should. But so should you. Don’t you also have the right to live out every day and hour of your natural life?

Does it matter that there are billions of people who, under your scenario, depend on your sacrificing your one-and-only life? Does it really boil down to a numbers game? If so, what is the magic number?

What if the world only contained three people, you and two others? You would still face the same conundrum, having to decide whether to sacrifice your life to save the other two. Would the fact that there are more of ‘them’ than there are of you still matter? If not, at what point does the lack of a mathematical balance inherent in the question play a role? Ever?

I’m asking a lot of questions, aren’t I?

It is a widely accepted notion that sacrificing one’s own interests for the ‘greater good’ is noble and even heroic. In keeping with this thinking, those who lived because you died would say, if they thought about your sacrifice at all: “Zachary was a hero. He saved the world. What a noble, selfless thing to do.” Then they would go back to watching television.

For me the crux of the matter is this: Some individual men and women have an indomitable spirit that can help make a positive difference in the lives of others. Others will choose to commit murder and mayhem. Some will simply sit around and take up space, allowing themselves to be fed, housed and entertained by everyone else in the community via taxes. All individual men and women, whether their predilection is towards good or evil, industriousness or sloth, whether accepting or rejecting individual responsibility, appear collectively, by some mysterious force, to do everything possible to crush the individual human spirit. Left to the do-gooders and social engineers of the world, will the human race exist in three or four generations? Probably. But not in a system that I would want to live in. Given that, if you agree with me, what will your sacrifice have accomplished? In a historical context, not much. Because of your sacrifice, the world would live on, but there would still be that inexorable collective march towards oblivion. You will have accomplished nothing more than simply delaying the inevitable.

But things can change, can’t they? At some point people around the world might realize that authoritarian, interventionist, controlling political philosophies and practices are not just counter-productive but morally wrong. What then? Individuals might then be free to work towards a better world on their own, without self-anointed bureaucrats and academics having the state-mandated power to enforce a uniform shade of grey conformity in everyone. Freedom spurs creativity, industry, innovation. The world would slowly become a better place, until inevitably the pendulum turned to swing back towards restrictions and control.

It is a complicated question, isn’t it? And we haven’t even addressed some of the more obvious questions. Like what? Well, if you were the only person left on earth, after you decided that sacrificing yourself for everyone else wasn’t something you wanted to do, it would be very lonely. And the human race would disappear because you wouldn’t have a wife or girlfriend to help you create babies to grow up and populate a new generation. Thousands of years of human history would come to an end.

And there, my son, is my rambling response to your question. It’s not quite as linear and organized as I might have hoped. I haven’t given you any real answers, only more questions. I think that is the way it should be. Most questions you face in life will not be as momentous as this one surely is, but each must be carefully considered. The best way to determine an appropriate response or action, when faced with a choice that has to be made, is to puzzle it through. Ask yourself questions. Consider alternative actions and the consequences of all of the alternatives. Make decisions based on analysis, not impulse. Above all, when making a decision, remember that what is expected of you by others isn’t necessarily the right thing to do. The decision as to what is right, ultimately, must be yours to make.

I wish you luck through life’s journey. I believe that you will make good decisions and that you will live a life which will make me proud to be your father.



  1. Thanks, She-Dork. There are days when I love him to pieces and other days when I... I guess I still love him to pieces, but would cheerfully sell him into slavery or something. Then, after a few moments, good sense prevails and life goes on.

  2. Wow, very insitefull. Its left open for interpretation, yet addresses the main issues with examples and counter counter examples. I do not think anyone could have written it any better. Its very well written for a child to understand(I am not fully an adult yet and understood this perfectly). I enjoyed reading this.

  3. Thank you, anonymous. I always appreciate comments from others. The world is really a very complicated place, isn't it? Good luck with your life and your future!