What does it mean to love and to sacrifice? Are they related, and if so, to what degree? In most stories and mythologies of significance throughout human history, self-sacrifice is a recurring theme of paramount importance. The need to give of oneself for the sake of another, or for the sake of the larger community or society, is something that has always been meaningful to us, that moves us deeply. It is quite common to view such acts of self-sacrifice as acts of love. The greater the act of sacrifice, the greater the act of love. From the most grand and enduring story of our culture, Jesus sacrificing himself for his love of humanity, to the most silly modern popcorn flick, Bruce Willis sacrificing himself for the love of his daughter in Armageddon, it is just a theme that resonates at any level in any story. (Yes, I kind of just compared the Bible and Armageddon, get over it!) But when is an act of self-sacrifice justified? When is it truly selfless? When is it honestly an act of love?
I believe because of how absurdly common this theme is in our stories, and because of how often it is linked to being an act of love, it can be easy to confuse the two and not look deeper, in stories and in life. We are being taught through our cultural mythos that to sacrifice oneself is good and noble, and that to do so for love is possibly the most beautiful expression of love. But what if we are sacrificing ourselves unnecessarily out of some misguided and grandiose notion of love? What if the sacrifice we make ends up hurting those we love in the long run and creates undue suffering?
Let’s keep the exploration on an intimate and personal level for this discussion to simplify the issue. I don’t really need to say more about the manifestation of this theme in the film ‘Dancer in the Dark’ than the fact that Bjork plays a woman who is always sacrificing for her son. This is one of the most classic love relationships where we see self-sacrifice, the mother and her child, and it does not get more intimate and personal than that. The idea of such an act is that by sacrificing something of ourselves, we are bettering the life of another, in this case our child, but this can just as easily apply to romantic relationships, other familial relationships, and even close friendships. However, by the very nature of self-sacrifice, we are making choices and decisions for another person which we believe to be best for them. We know that this other person we love will not want to see us hurt or suffering, and therefore would not go along willingly with a plan that requires us to bear all of the burden of sacrifice. So we choose to forgo their input and opinion and make the choice unilaterally. Is that really a selfless way to operate? In relationships, aren’t we supposed to value open and honest communication above all else? I think today, more than ever, we place a premium on conversation, debate, and consensus, especially in healthy and functional relationships. In a relationship with another person we claim to love and who loves us, do we even have the right to make monumental decisions which will greatly impact the other person unilaterally?
There are so many avenues that could be pursued here, but I want to try my best to stay focused and not confuse the issue. I think it is important to split the issue between two functionally different categories of relationship, those between two adults of any type, and those between a guardian and a child. I will make the case that traditional acts of self-sacrifice in any relationship between two adults seems dysfunctional and selfish based on our current value systems within relationships. The person making the sacrifice is really placing their ego and what they believe is best above their relationship and the feelings and opinions of the other person. The one example that keeps popping into my head is when an individual gets a life-threatening illness and keeps that information to themselves as long as possible to avoid scaring or hurting their loved ones. In theory, we can all understand this idea, especially if we imagine being in that situation. However, I believe the best litmus test for how to act is not what we think is best for others from our viewpoint, but how we would want a loved one to act towards us if they were in the same situation. If your partner or sibling or friend was dying of cancer, would you want them to keep it from you and deny you the opportunity to offer them love and support? Or would you want your role in their process of either recovery or dying to be a conversation between the two of you? I think we can all understand and even admire the person who sacrifices themselves out of a noble ideal from afar, but in reality we would want to share their pain and suffering if they were our loved one in order to hopefully lessen it and show our love for them.
The issue becomes a bit more complex and complicated when looking at the parent-child relationship. Obviously the younger the child, the more responsibility the parent has to be unilateral in their decisions and decide what is best for the child. But where is the line? What decisions are too big and impactful to make without a conversation and input from the child? At what age does the conversation have to become more open and cover more concerns? I think these questions are exceedingly difficult to answer, and that makes it much easier for a parent to get caught in their own viewpoint and fail to see what they might want if they were the child again. Parents, mothers especially, are hardwired to sacrifice themselves for their children. It is instinctual and was borne out of necessity by evolution for survival. However, we are at a different place and time in human history. The survival need that hardwired the instinct into us has become mostly irrelevant in the developed world. As we live in a world with much different problems and circumstances, can this instinct get in the way and muddy up our decision making process? What if you, as a parent, sacrifice all of yourself and push your child in school to achieve greatness so they can get into the best college and become a great success in the future. Do you lose a lot of time you could have spent with your child? Do they resent the pushing to be something you think is important? Does it hurt your relationship once they become an adult? Does it keep them from pursuing their passion and being themselves?
I am asking these questions because I think they are more important than ever to be asking. We have the luxury in the modern western world of being able to pursue whatever dreams we wish and make a living. Perhaps we will not get rich by following our passion, but we may find happiness and comfort in life, which are of the highest value today. Gone are the days of doing whatever job we can get to scrape by and raise a family. The possibilities are endless, which means keeping the possibilities endless in the minds of our children is important. However, children also need discipline, and sometimes need to be pushed to do more than they would by themselves for their own benefit. And children need the availability, attention, and love of their parents, which means being around and spending quality time. So how do we balance all of these concerns and know when to sacrifice for our children, how to sacrifice for our children, when to bring them into the conversation, and when to let them shoulder some of the burden? Of course I don’t have the answer to any of these challenging questions. All I can do is start a conversation and hope that some of you might think about these issues. And I encourage you, whether you’ve seen the film before or not, to watch ‘Dancer in the Dark’ after reading this and see what you think about the ways in which Bjork’s character Selma sacrifices for her son.