Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
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There is a long-held belief that sacrifice is the pathway to all accomplishments, ranging from high-school diplomas to eternal salvation. These are the types of things that are accomplished through sacrifice. In the sense that the word is being used here, meaning that sometimes they gave up parties they really, really wanted to go to because they had an exam the next day, yes, they are making a sacrifice. Probably, hopefully, many of them. That type of basic sacrifice is easy to point out. Naming those sacrifices that merit eternal salvation, however, are well above my celestial security clearance.

We give a lot of weight to the act of sacrifice. It is seen as the path itself, unfortunately, not just a way of thinking about the experiences along it. That does us a disservice.

I often wonder who I’m really doing things for, to be honest. I make a practice of it, actually. It’s a very useful exercise. The stark truth is that we always and only do things for ourselves. That may not seem true on the surface, but the real motivating factor of any action we take is how it will benefit us in terms of the love we wish to show or staying out of trouble or getting brownie points or feeding our sometimes addiction to receiving validation from others.

We sacrifice of ourselves most for the benefit of love. We, as the hopeful recipients of that love, sacrifice of ourselves to receive it every day. Sometimes for good, sometimes not so much.

The distinction I’m possibly sluggish to make here is that some sacrifices are, ultimately, not in service to our highest goals. Some sacrifices make it worse. Some destroy the very things we think we are sacrificing ourselves to preserve. So the question comes again: Who are you doing it for?

This question is an arrow marker toward a way of thinking about the subject of your sacrifices. It will not give you an answer to the question: Are my sacrifices sacrificing me? Not immediately, anyway. But it will begin to illuminate your own view of it. It will create a picture over time, every time you’re brave enough to ask it of yourself: Who am I doing this for? Ask it of every single action you take, from brushing your teeth to caring for your elderly grandmother. Make sure it’s a good answer.

The answers will almost always be mundane. But do you brush your teeth so that people won’t smell your bad breath? Or do you brush them so you are always in possession of healthy teeth? The answer could be both, but what’s the real percentage of each? You can tell by what you do on your day off when there’s no one around to smell your breath.

We fear that if we ask these things, we will be considered selfish. Good. I love that word. In fact, being more selfish is my favorite New Year’s resolution. I make it all the time. And every year, I get more selfish. At least in the way I mean it. It comes down to the same methodology as that of airplane safety, really.

But first, a little refresher on the history of the word selfish.

The word selfish has a definition that does not match its structure. It’s origins speak of that, and in their own way, contribute to the unsustainable societal meme that sacrifice is the path to salvation. Not a path, the path.

The word selfish was coined in 1640 by an archbishop for his own use to describe, in the most repugnant terms, the events of his day. To him, there was no word sufficiently hostile to describe the unworthiness of human nature as he witnessed it. So he created one.

The concept of “self” up until that time was thought of very differently. Even the ancient Greek and Hebrew had no words for it in the way that combined body, mind and soul. Self referred to our physical bodies only, not the entirety of our being. That archbishop, I suspect, began something ultimately benevolent in his dark attempt to group a person’s soul with the actions of their physical body. He helped to create the notion of recognizing our self-identity as being more than just our physicality.

When we do things for ourselves, we are being literally self-ish, meaning we do them with an awareness of self. That is neither good nor bad on its own. It’s when we serve ourselves to the exclusion or harm of others that typifies the standard usage of the word selfish, but that’s the archbishop’s inelegant definition. And it’s now getting in the way of our continuing growth as a society.

We aren’t being selfish enough in the truest sense of the word, and we’re being held back by the pervasiveness of old, outdated ways of thinking.

Sacrifice is not the path. It is a tool we carry with us on our journey upon the path. Alongside it are character, faithfulness, empathy, wit and compassion, among others to be sure. Sacrifice has its proper place and value. It should not be misused.

The question returns: Who are you doing it for? Because we might still do much of what we are already doing in life. Helping your elderly grandmother is often something we must do, but what’s the fuel in your tank? Is it a good fuel? Does it fill you or drain you? Is it real nutrition or junk food? Think deeply about this. It is the underpinning methodology of every action you take. It is so deeply entrenched in who we are that it impacts our nervous system, our immunity, our sleep, even our diet.

If an airplane, for some reason, depressurizes in flight, oxygen masks will automatically drop down from above each seat. During the preflight safety instructions, we are told by the flight attendants that in the event the masks should come down, we are to put on our own masks first before helping others with theirs. This is not considered selfish. One cannot help others if one is not able to breathe properly. Take a deep breath now. That is a selfish act. Do more of them.

When we are more careful about the effectiveness of our sacrifices, we are behaving in greater consonance with our highest goals. Thinking this way might help us to remember once in a while that we need to ask for help with caring for our elderly grandmother on occasions we might otherwise have just shouldered through it. We too often maintain an unsustainable sacrifice, even if it means that the rest we habitually lose from neglecting our need for rest, over and over, makes us vulnerable to the flu that winter which kept us from being able to help our grandmother at all for over two weeks, but not before giving it to her. This is a hypothetical example, but we know this story.

It might mean insisting that your child make at least token savings for their own college education rather than paying for it outright. Having some skin in the game is better for you and them both. They still get an education, but more. That’s the kind of selfish I’m talking about.

It’s when we are self-less that we always get ourselves into trouble. Breathe.

Being more selfish is compassion without burnout or harm. Being more selfish is empowerment of others rather than enabling them. In the words of a local social entrepreneur whom I admire named Ginny White, it’s a hand up, not a hand out. It does not mean giving up being a good neighbor. It’s just remembering that the philosophy to do no harm means to ourselves as well.

Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. He is the producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube and host of the Our Common Dharma podcast series. Email wildarcangelo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.