Setting the scene
Somewhere, deep out in the California desert, a group of surly men is gathering. And, as the sun beats relentlessly down, the scene unfolds: a biker gang ranged menacingly on one side, two cowering Mexican immigrants on the other. “Illegals!” cries the lead biker – “Job-stealing, good-for-nothing illegals” – raising his gun to deliver the final dispatch of justice.
Suddenly, out of nowhere it seems, comes the hero of the hour: the lonely American man to defend the Mexican cause. Now there is a body in the way, and a choice to be made. We hear the shot, and down goes the unknown defender, clutching at his bleeding chest. Our protagonist has just made the ultimate sacrifice.
Or has he? In fact, the scene comes straight from mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown’s new Netflix special Sacrifice – nothing more than an elaborately staged performance to demonstrate the mechanisms of sacrifice. What makes it all the more remarkable is that the man who put himself in front of the (fake) bullet had no idea that it was a set-up – and, more than that, just one year previously, he had been an immigrant-hating xenophobe who would never have associated with that particular grouping.
Personally, I found it a thought-provoking watch (do check it out on Netflix if you’re curious), which really got me thinking about stories of sacrifice, and the role that sacrifice plays in our own lives. You see, stories of sacrifice really are everywhere when you start looking for them. Think of the Christian stories that underpin our culture to this day: not just Jesus Christ, the archetypal sacrifice, but Cain and Abel in the Old Testament, for instance, or the summation found in John’s Gospel: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Remarkably, the stories are much the same in a secular context, tales of self-sacrifice and predominantly military heroics embodied in stories such as the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, The Alamo, and in our remembrance for the fallen in all the wars of history. The amount of films that have been made to commemorate such sacrifice goes to show how much these stories capture the human imagination. Clearly, sacrifice is a part of the human narrative.
What does it mean for us in our everyday lives, however, away, we hope, from those utmost situations of life and death?
Well, the first point to make is that sacrifice is required of us all sooner or later. You want to switch career? Sure, but you’re going to have to sacrifice money, status and stability to start from the bottom all over again. You want to overhaul your finances? Good, let’s start by sacrificing all those meals out and holidays abroad. You want to get in the shape of your life? Absolutely, but you’re going to be spending your Saturday nights at the bar(bell) from now on.
These might seem like trivial examples, but these are the sacrifices we contend with on a daily basis, in addition to the greater sacrifices we may be called to make as partners, as parents, as individuals with people who depend on us and people we care about.
Coming to terms with sacrifice
Despite all this, I believe that this need for sacrifice comes as a surprise to many of us (and I by no means exclude myself from that bracket). My generation, by which I mean the so-called millennial generation, has grown up being told we can have it all: a well-paid job – and meaningful work; a glittering career – and the perfect family; success – and no work put in.
There is an entitlement and height of expectation, a desire to have it all, and now, that – when it is inevitably disappointed – results in extraordinary feelings of unhappiness, disappointment, resentment, jealousy and guilt. This is what I’ve been told I can have, this is what everyone else seems to have, why don’t I have it too?
It is, of course, a false image, a mirage: nothing achieved comes without sacrifice, and one thing generally comes at the expense of another. A far healthier attitude, in my opinion, is to accept that sacrifice is a part of our life, and be prepared to make that sacrifice with decisiveness, courage and empathy when the time comes. Because a sacrifice, when willingly made, is one of the things that makes us human.