Trying to be Human 101 digs into human experience and how it effects adoption. Previously I discussed the nature of dignity and provided an excerpt from Jim Gritter's Life Givers. This is the first of several posts within the Trying to be Human 101 series.
Sacrifice is a strange concept. It is comforting to know that sacrifices are made but we don't want to get very near it. Comfort increases with distance from the individuals making sacrifices. When discussing adoption it is common to acknowledge that first families are making sacrifices. The impact those sacrifices have on adoptees is sometimes respected, but often ignored. The nature of sacrifice is left largely unexplored. If it is thought of frequently, or with depth, it is conjured into existence. Personally confronting sacrifice is an overwhelming experience. We often seek refuge by distancing ourselves from those making the sacrifices that frighten us.
It's important to understand why sacrifice is so uncomfortable. Discussing sacrifice highlights our position relative to the person making the sacrifice. There are a few different roads this can take, but most of them lead to a disconcerting feeling of selfishness or powerlessness. When discussing sacrifices made by others we often feel selfish. Mother Teresa is a good example of this experience. Compared to her work most people feel rather sheepish about their own charitable work or giving. Despite this there is also a little kick of satisfaction when an element in our own experience is common to the saintly person. Unfortunately that satisfaction only works when there is a corollary between those experiences. If Mother Teresa cared for the sick and I volunteer to help the homeless, I can share in the good of her deeds. However, if I don't do any charitable work at all the gravity of Mother Teresa's sacrifice functions as a source of guilt. On the other hand the feeling of powerlessness comes when we identify too closely with the person forced to make a sacrifice. It's very uncomfortable to know that some people are forced to make sacrifices against their will. It may be circumstances beyond their control or direct coercion. In either case, identifying with people in these circumstances highlights lack of control in our own circumstances, and thus the possibility of being forced to make significant sacrifices ourselves.
That's why the idea of the Splendid Doormat is so appealing. The doormat who asks nothing, who needs nothing, becomes alien. We don't identify with them because they are "so strong" or "so brave" that we strip them of their humanity and their frailty. These super-sacrifices cannot be hurt the way we can. Sacrifices we can't imagine occur daily for these saints. So we don't need to reconcile our experiences with these people. We never confront the idea that these people are just like us.
Because of this we can't unpack the idea of sacrifice without personal risk. We needn't make a personal sacrifice to begin the discussion. Beginning the discussion is a sacrifice of personal security. This discussion can start if we believe the risk is for something worthwhile. That is, after all, the fundamental nature of sacrifices. Dictionary.com provides several definitions that work well to kick off the conversation:
sac·ri·fice[sak-ruh-fahys] Show IPA noun, verb, sac·ri·ficed, sac·ri·fic·ing.
1. the offering of animal, plant, or human life or of some material possession to a deity, as in propitiation or homage.
2. the person, animal, or thing so offered.
3. the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.
4. the thing so surrendered or devoted.
Right there in #3 we see it. The destruction of something prized for the sake of something with a more pressing claim. Applied to adoption this paints a very stark picture of what's going on for a first family. There's no sugar coating here. Something prized is being destroyed forever. Worth never enters this conversation. This is about needs, not wants or relative values. This is an experience most sane individuals don't want to get near. Jim Gritter covers circumstances of necessity well enough I won't go over it again here. But there's something else in the definition of sacrifice that muddies the waters.
Right at the top, in definition #1, "as in propitiation or homage". There is a power dynamic in sacrifice that can place the sacrificer below the recipient. The feeling that a birth family must propitiate or appease a person or group in power is dangerous but common. This illustrates another reason sacrifice is a taboo subject; social dominance and power structure is not discussed in polite society. Since sacrifice carries with it an implied subservience, anyone connected to it is in danger of moving down the social ladder. More importantly, discussing socially and economically enforced power schema is taboo in most societies today. But perhaps most nefarious of all, if a first parent must appease someone, that implies they have done something wrong. This reinforces the idea that it's acceptable to receive a child, but unacceptable to place one for adoption. That means the adoptive parents are morally superior to the birth family. In this case sacrifice carries the stigma of moral degeneracy.
Sacrifice is fundamentally overwhelming. Confronting personal sacrifice is incredibly difficult. Surprisingly, the difficulty is not in overcoming our own discomfort or pain. The hardest part of making a sacrifice is encountering its global experience. The commonality of sacrifice is only overshadowed by its necessity. Because sacrifice is born of need it shows us our powerlessness. The pervasiveness of sacrifice is a reminder that we cannot control our own lives. Each instance of making a sacrifice is a discrete reminder of that constant and difficult truth.