More on Sacrifice

I brought up sacrifice in a recent post but didn’t explain what I meant by it. The word can evoke strong reactions and associations: slaughtered animals on the altar, Christ on the cross, children’s guilt (“just think of how much we have sacrificed for you”). But there is a simpler way of thinking about it.

“Sacrifice” derives from the concept of “making something sacred” through an offering to God. Yet in secular terms it may mean that we are mortal and can’t have or do everything. Having one thing means not having something else; doing one thing means not doing something else. Not only do we have to choose, but we have to give something up.

We come under pressure to be and do everything, or at least to believe that we can (and to speak the jargon of such belief). Especially in U.S. American culture, with growth mindset, positivity, happiness movements, and such, it is shameful to suggest that we have limits.

Limits mean not having something, giving something up, letting something go. There is something sacred (even for the secular) in those relinquishments, as insignificant as they may seem, because we make them for eternity. True, at a different future moment we could take a different tack, but that’s already a different moment.

Understood in this way, sacrifices don’t have to be particularly virtuous, grandiose, or even conscious. They happen whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. Sometimes they do stand out; sometimes they do involve some kind of greatness of spirit. But often they escape our notice or just dimly cross our mind.

Wait, someone might protest, aren’t you betraying the meaning of sacrifice here? Isn’t it supposed to involve the holy? Well, holiness hides in unlikely places. Maybe Abraham’s not sacrificing Isaac was a sacrifice in its own right. Maybe holiness lies not in grand acts, but in the willingness, here and there, even invisibly, to let something go. Or, in some cases, to insist on something, even to the point of alienating others. Or to live quietly, without fanfare.

This all seems to get confusing and equivocal: if anything can be a sacrifice, then sacrifice means nothing. But that isn’t so. Each person has to live out a life that won’t be anyone else’s. Within it, nothing can be undone. Some choices, directions are better than others, but every life will have its mistakes.

This gives no guidance about right and wrong, but at least it makes room for a certain kind of finiteness, the kind which in turn may open into infinity.

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew James Chandler

     /  April 23, 2023

    Perhaps it’s time to resacularise the secular, starting with the gun lobby and Trump’s ‘evangelicals’ in the USA.


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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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