There is an art to sacrifice.
That is to say, if we want to be decent, loving, compassionate, and human, we have to give something up: and that is our identity, that is, the sameness which we have crafted over the course of our life using the brother, who has forgotten his task and no longer cherishes or protects the sister. No one wants to do this; and I think that we can see that the trend in humanity, especially in American society, has been to emphasize identity, that is to say, to encourage people to reinforce their “individuality”, instead of encouraging them to surrender that in favor of community. Some social scientists and progressive philosophers have recognized this dilemma; and the fury with which the idea of community is attacked by so-called “conservatives” (who often seem to want to conserve nothing more than their right to be indecent to others) demonstrates just how threatened the brother feels when he is advised that he ought to be protecting the sister.
This idea of the sacrifice of identity is a consistent one throughout mythology and religious teaching. We can write a lot of noble words about it and tell a lot of tall tales; but in the end, it always comes down to how I am now and what I am willing to sacrifice now. This is a constant struggle.
When folks read Jeanne de Salzmann’s The Reality of Being, one tends to examine the trees and lose sight of the forest. It is a landscape of perpetual sacrifice where form and identity have to be struggled with and abandoned. There is no single moment when the final battle takes place and all is won; one gets the impression from her diaries that she struggled with these questions for her whole life. Any impression we might have that she “arrived” at a destination is mistaken; becoming human is a process. There is no location at which the journey ends. Short, of course, of death.
In speaking of these things, and where we find ourselves in terms of the authority of our identity, I had an impression the other day that we are wrong 80% of the time that we talk about spiritual matters. We are wrong 80% of the time in general, or perhaps more; and it is because form and identity insist on using the same template to explain a constantly changing environment. Now, of course this is well known in the social sciences and externally; all kinds of clever books are written about businesses that make this mistake. Yet the mistake is not an external one in the end; it lies close to the core of our being and what we are.
I’m reminded here of something I’ve written about before: the way that I woke up one morning in 2001 and everything in me was different. That’s happened twice, of course; the first time was in 1981 where I woke up one morning and realized that my alcoholism was killing me. Everything was different in me at that moment; and it saved my life. But the moment in 2001 was a bit different, in fact vastly different: too much to say about that here. Yet one of the most important points was that I woke up that morning in 2001 and realized that I was completely wrong about my being, who I was, what I was. In particular, I had formed my entire being for the past 30+ years around the very rigid idea that I was an artist of some kind; and that morning, when I woke up, I wasn’t an artist. Not anymore. I had become a human being, which is a very different thing; and I discovered in that moment that what was real about my identity did not include being an artist, even though I had spent 30 years convinced that this was the case.
I don’t think I’m special or different in this regard. I think it’s entirely possible for any of us — perhaps all of us — to spend 30, 40, or 50 years thinking we are one thing, being very certain of it, only to suddenly have a terrific shock (or wake up with grace within us) and realize that we are not that thing at all. At that moment, we realize that we were not wrong 80% of the time — or even 90% of the time. We discover we were wrong about ourselves 100% of the time: and this is what I’m getting at in terms of the inner truth. When we speak about who we are and what we believe in and so on and so forth, we are wrong about it 80 or 90 or even 100% of the time.
We don’t see this; we credit ourselves with credibility. Yet there is none. This ought to provoke radical, life-changing, identity-crashing realizations in us; yet how often does that happen?
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.