Sunday, July 15, 2012

Trying to be Human 101: The Nature of Sacrifice

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. provides several definitions that work well to kick off the conversation:


[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.


  1. Compassion, I believe, should also include making sacrafices that allow others to not have to make unbearable sacrafices. We all have duty--- the call to make sacrafices or do work for people beyond ourselves. But if one person is at risk of being called to make a sacrafice that will destroy them, part of combined social duty should including preventing humans from needing to make self destructive and harmful sacrafices that can cause trauma and damage and emotional suffering for them for years to come.

    I.e. we should better identify the needs of pregnant parents-- including their emotional needs for support and to work through difficult issues and provide more applicable support that actually meets the real difficulties they face.

  2. If a pregnant mother or "expecting" father (however your prefered term) is worried that they are not equipped emotionally, we should use the tools we have available to people with money-- such as counseling, loving kindness meditation, massage, doula services, pregnant momma massage-- and humane supportive community that brings healing and support to the heart of the emotional wounds and offers guidance and strength to help parents build the strength and inner health they need to love and support their children.

  3. As an aside, yes people should try to make decisions that avoid putting themselves in a position to need this support and it's ok to teach-- along with providing this support-- that individuals who use these services are responsable for getting healthy and making decisions that are good for themselves, their children, and society as a whole as best they are able. Which includes not having sex at all if you aren't emotionally and financially ready to parent or are have 100 percent certainty that no pregnancy will occur (anything less that 100 percent certainty means you are taking a risk with a future persons life that they will be born to people unable to care for them and is morally wrong. Absolutely forgivable and understandable and human, but yes, morally wrong)

    So yes there is an element of morality because the duty to do right actions is a necessary social framework that we need people to adhere to in order to prevent suffering. I think in our "pro-sex" society in which we pretend that sexual behavior should not be associated with morality, we ignore that moral behavior in relation to sex served not only purposely social norms (and many social norms are in fact useless) but also in fact prevented children from being born to couples who were not ready and able to care for children in a healthy way. Unless you have 100% certainty that no child will be born as a result of sex, it is taking a risk of harm to a child to have sex without consideration for how they will experience being born and given up for adoption, or born and kept by parents who aren't willing or able to love and care for them as best they can.

  4. I say this an a very horny kinky person with plenty of sexual experience-- I do not believe that we can EVER judge whether a person is or was trying their best. In truth, I'm not sure we really can even do this accurately for ourselves. But we DO need to identify actions that can cause harm and teach people to make decisions with respect to that (morality). So because adoption involves the decision to have sex without being willing or able to love and care for a child-- and the child will carry the consequences of that, people with in tact empathy will believe that was a wrong decision. (Moral judgement of the decision, not the person making it) We are human and make mistakes and any one with a moral framework that involves pointing out with actions are beneficial vs harmful should also have in tact forgiveness and understanding for how often we make mistakes. And socially we should make great efforts to help others even if they have made a mistake. If someone smokes until they have a disease and is then broke and in need of long term medical care, we should help them. But assigning a "should"-- saying that society has a moral duty to right action to others; also means that individuals have a moral duty to right action for others. Meaning they should not have chosen to smoke and put themselves at risk of a disease. We can forgive society for failing to prioritize mothers (and fathers) who willingly chose to have sex without thinking of the welling being of the child, and we can have forgiveness for individuals for failing to consider living beings that can result from sex and make those beings and the burden society might carry if they fulfill their duty to help the family that may struggle when unprepared for a child.

    But both individuals and society need to acknowledge that morality exists, duty to more than oneself exists, and that right action should involve helping people even if they make mistakes while also teaching them to develop values for more than just their immediate self.

  5. (The final part in this ridiculously long treatise)

    I would like to add that helping the poor in general often requires forgiving human beings for making decisions that were definately mistakes, despite the person may have made poor decisions.

    Many things can damage our ability to know right from wrong to begin with (many things seem gray that with intellectual capacity, a calm aware mind, use of empathy for more than oneself, and in tact future oriented understanding of the reality of consequences-- are not actually very gray)--- and what's more many things in a persons biology, upbringing, and psyche might make it difficult to follow through even when one might have assesed a right course of action. More often then not, when we make decisions that put others at risk (and putting ourselves at risk DOES damage people around us)-- we are not thinking clearly and don't feel very good mastery of our own impulses and behaviors. This is very understandable, and something that gets better-- not worse, by being forgiven and/or understood, loved, and believed in by other people. What's more if we truly did our very best given our understanding and capacity at the time, there isn't much to forgive so much as understand and address the root of the real problems. On complete knowledge of ourselves (or others) we might find that more often than we realize people who do harmful, neglectful, selfish, or alienating and abandoning things were grappling with more than they could sort out at the time and actually do want to be good people and make good choices but weren't able to in those moments given what they were dealing with. Quite frequently we fail to choose to help others because we don't know how, or because we are afraid that helping people who do not have pro-social values will enable bad actions to thrive (and promote suffering) in a society. Quite often we fail to value thinking through how our actions affect more than ourselves because we are absorbed in our own suffering and life issues and simply can't see beyond our immediate world or believe the consequences might really happen to ourselves and others. Quite often we are escaping the reality of what we feel and our own pain and dificulties and can't really see the existence of other people, our future selves, or others future existence; and the expansive details of what their needs are and how that should affect our current action.

  6. "That means the adoptive parents are morally superior to the birth family. In this case sacrifice carries the stigma of moral degeneracy."

    Great always! I have been out of the blogging world for a bit and jumped on to read a few things this morning.

    I am really struggling with how to communicate this to people in our lives, people on the "adoptive parent" side. Our son's birth mom is incredible and has an unbelievable story about the choice she made for her son. I don't share her story. I keep things simple. But by keeping things "simple" and not sharing her story, people make assumptions, they put us above her, they say things like "your son is so "lucky"". I don't like this. As much as I try to explain the "sacrifice", the choice, the power, the person, that chose adoption for her son, I can't seem to draw out the respect and awe and superior thought that I feel others should should see and feel about the "person" not just the "birth mom" that we feel so strongly about.


What do you think? I'm curious.