Saturday, September 1, 2012

Trying to be Human 101: Passivity in 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 second of several posts within the Trying to be Human 101 series discussing sacrifice.

Sacrifice is a transaction. Typically there is social contract that accompanies sacrifices. When one makes a sacrifice, the belief is the loss will allow that need to be addressed appropriately. An example of this might be a person who takes an additional shift at work, sacrificing time with loved ones, to make more money for living expenses. Because choice is involved the sacrificer can bring their personal power to bear in the situation, thus giving them a sense of control. The weight of the sacrifice can be compared to the need calling for it. Judgement can be made including rational and emotional experiences and a choice is made. But what happens when the tables turn? What if the choice to make a sacrifice is illusory? All too often a sacrifice is made but the perceived contract is not fulfilled. Instead the sacrificer, upon losing their prized subject (be it a relationship, item, situation, or idea), feels powerless and no closer to fulfilling the need that drove the sacrifice in the first place. This experience is all too common in adoption.

I believe this sudden shift of experience is symptomatic of a disturbing reality; birthparents are sacrificed in adoption. This is not always true, but it happens with troubling frequency. The relationship between sacrificer and sacrificed can be subtle and murky, especially when the sacrifices are relationships. Other times it is blatant, as with most international adoptions. The birthparent, rather than making a sacrifice on behalf of their child, is sacrificed. The reason for the sacrifice varies. Sometimes the parent is sacrificed in order to fulfill the adoptive families need for a child to parent. Often the birthfamily is sacrificed in far subtler ways.

A birthparent is most often sacrificed on the alter of social expectation. The birthparent becomes the sacrifice necessary to blot out the apparent sin of conceiving a child in less than ideal circumstances. This ties in directly with the Splendid Doormat. In order to attain social acceptability the first family must sacrifice all claim, personal rights, worth, and dignity in order to achieve a semi-saint status. Once sainted the first family can then, and only then, be considered redeemed from the disgrace of adoption.

This may seem a little far fetched or that I'm dramatizing the point. In reality I'm soft-pedaling this one. A bit of study in art history and especially in film history shows how prevalent these themes are. The hoops for redemption must be jumped through and none of them can be skipped or exchanged. Breaking social mores requires drastic action for redemption, if one can be redeemed at all.

 In the case of adoption the process of sacrifice can be either; humbling but important, or destructive and horrible. The way we describe the key difference in English is with voice. In active voice, "I sacrifice", I am making choices and am directly involved in the path of that sacrifice. Though I make a sacrifice I still have some degree of control. In passive voice, "I am sacrificed", I have no say. I have lost the ability to apply my will to the process. Instead I become an element of sacrifice, not an active participant. In adoptions it is extremely dangerous to alloy anyone to sacrifice anyone else. To do so is to strip a person of their humanity. To be sacrificed is to be told one has no say in their future, no right to express personal needs, and no expectation these experiences will change. This might sound familiar.

Even in adoptions where all the adults respect one another and behave with emotional/relational integrity, the adoptee may still feel they have been sacrificed. Obviously no one wants this to be the case. An overwhelming majority of parents want their children to feel loved. This means sacrifices are made on their behalf, but they are not sacrificed themselves. Unfortunately, in adoption, no one can predict how the adoptee will feel about his/her circumstances.

I believe, despite the best of intentions, if an adoptee feels s/he has been sacrificed in their adoption, they have. No one has the right to say otherwise. Parents, where ever they fall on the biology/care continuum, may feel they have done everything right and have nothing to apologize for. But the best intentions cannot countermand the emotional reality of a child. If the adoptee feels s/he was sacrificed it's true. The only thing for a parent to do is face that reality head on and try to pick up the pieces.

When all goes well no one is sacrificed. Instead everyone in the adoption will make sacrifices to support one another. With this mutual support everyone's needs and experiences are respected.
I wish everyone in adoption had this experience. But when it does go wrong, as it can so quickly, telling a person her/his emotional experience is "wrong" only deepens the depersonalization. It is not possible to undo mistakes, but some can be avoided through careful attention. In adoption applying our integrity and compassion to our decisions will help avoid most of these problems. With that in mind it's possible to make an adoption something that really is beautiful. That happens when the sacrifices made are respected and celebrated for being exactly what they are.

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