Lent and the Psychology of Sacrifice (Part 1 of 2)

A journalist and visitor to DrHurd.com writes:

Q: ‘The meaning of Lent is different to different people, but overall there seems to be a general theme of self-sacrifice or self-denial in an effort to put one’s mind in a more spiritual direction. Am I correct?’

Dr. Hurd: You are right. This is precisely why I question the whole Judeo-Christian premise that sacrifice is the ultimate moral ideal. If sacrifice were the ideal, then all of us would be living like Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Yet most of us don’t live like Mother Teresa, and would not want to do so.

Even if we did, society would not be a better place. Society would simply be one gigantic hospital or social services center whereby everyone has to be sick, or in need, so that everyone else can be a sacrificing giver. It’s logically impossible, and—to most of us, at least—utterly undesirable to live that way. Plus, if sacrificial giving is so moral, what does that say about the recipients of the sacrificial giving? Aren’t they immoral for accepting the help? They’re selfishly taking something, after all.

Many people claim that self-sacrifice makes you more ‘spiritual.’ It’s taken for granted that being spiritual is a good thing, but the term is always left undefined. By ‘spiritual,’ people usually mean doing something outside of yourself. But again, that’s an impossibility. By definition, everything you do—including giving of yourself, in some context— involves the use of your consciousness and your behaviors in some way.

As a psychotherapist, I constantly see the psychological wreckage—the broken dreams, the despair, the missed opportunities, the resentment—caused by the philosophy and psychology of self-sacrifice. Living a life of sacrifice causes people to become bitter, resentful, and depressed. It’s one of the major causes of mental disorder; but it’s not even addressed in the psychological literature because most of my profession accepts, uncritically, the Judeo-Christian teaching that sacrifice is the essence of goodness and (therefore) mental health.

But in the privacy of their own therapy and psychiatry offices, it’s usually a different story. Therapists spend a lot of time helping their clients become more selfish, in the sense of being rationally self-interested, even though they wouldn’t use that term.

Q: Whether or not one has a faith in God, how important is it to human emotional well-being?

A: Faith in a God is only important to a religious person. Most people pay lip service to faith, but don’t really possess it except during a time of crisis (e.g., death of a loved one, sickness, etc.) when they feel unusually vulnerable and out of control.

Rather than faith, I recommend the use of one’s mind through reason, and rational fulfillment of one’s interests. I say ‘rational’ because some activities—drug abuse, promiscuity, compulsion, addiction—are sometimes confused with ‘selfishness,’ while in fact they harm rather than help or enhance the objective life of the self. We must keep in mind that some activities are objectively self-defeating, even if superficially they seem ‘selfish.’

Q: Is it just drudgery, and a burden, or can denial or self-sacrifice ever lead to inspiration and edification?

A: Let’s define sacrifice. Self-sacrifice essentially means the giving up of a personally greater good for the sake of a personally lesser good.

So if you give away your car to your next door neighbor, an individual you don’t especially know or like, and you don’t have a lot of money, then you’re obviously making a huge sacrifice. But if you work hard to buy a car for your spouse, whom you love and who does not take advantage of you, then it’s not a sacrifice.

Another example: If you rush into a burning building to save your own child, it’s not a sacrifice; but if you rush into a burning building to save the child of a stranger, you are likely making a sacrifice.

If something truly is a sacrifice, then it necessarily leads to a sense of drudgery and resentment. People won’t always admit it to themselves, because they have been taught that sacrifice is the essence of virtue. So they don’t like to admit that they hate it. But they do hate it—and they should.

Q: What are the potential benefits of leaving the self behind?

A: None. All of life ought to be about the pursuit of your own chosen values, and the pursuit of your own chosen definition of happiness—provided, of course, you allow the same and equal right to others. Sometimes the pursuit of a value might involve helping out a loved one or a cause in which you believe and from which you personally benefit (e.g., the soldiers who fought for freedom in the American Revolution; or the young Chinese man who stood in front of the Communist tank some years ago, to name just two examples).

But I would never recommend helping somebody else unless they represented a value to you in some way, they did not bring their trouble on themselves, and so long as you can afford to offer the psychological/material help. Otherwise, you are making a sacrifice, and I would argue that this is not right or healthy.

The same applies to a cause. Americans fighting for their own personal freedom in the American Revolution is one thing; soldiers being forced to settle centuries-old disputes in Eastern Europe, the Far East or the Middle East (which will probably never be settled anyway) is something else altogether. While Americans have every right to defend their freedoms, this isn’t the same as being the world’s keeper.

Concluded in tomorrow’s column.