Recently, in a discussion with your grandmother about our new president, it dawned on me: my heroes — those whom I respect and admire the most — have sacrificed.
It wasn’t all about them. They risked everything for others. They were truly great in my mind.
And then just a week or so later I was listening to an interview of Kara Swisher and heard her say, “I’m moved by sacrifice.” That’s it, I thought. I, too, am moved by sacrifice.
I think it’s the authenticity. We live surrounded by inauthenticity. It’s as if the world is intentionally denying us that which we crave the most.
Sadly, you can’t believe most of what some people say. Politicians to be sure. But others, too. I saw it all the time in the business world. And much during my brief foray into the nonprofit world.
I think it’s one of the reasons families mean so much to us. Relatives are more inclined to be frank with each other, more so, as a group, than neighbors and coworkers. That’s why it’s truly special when you’re fortunate enough to have some close friends who are authentic. We’re fortunate to have such friends.
To some degree, however, all of us put on a mask before leaving home in the morning. We like to project an image. It’s understandable. The world generally doesn’t reward authenticity. It’s considered weak. So we fake it. All the time. We fear the consequences if people saw us for whom we truly are — if they knew what we were really thinking — if they knew we weren’t as capable and confident as we try to make people think — or if they knew that we saw through some of the bullshit that our companies and institutions spend so much time and resources generating. So, we pretend. A lot. Some more than others.
But it gets old. You grow weary of all this fakery. And, sometimes, you get hurt by the fakery when it manifests itself as duplicity, as it often does. There’s nothing worse than a smiling face sticking a shiv in your back.
It makes you skeptical of others. And perhaps even a cynic. At the very least, it’s a wound that never fully heals.
Some people don’t seem to mind. They’re masters of fakery. Indeed, they seem to thrive on it. And it can serve them well.
Others, though, do mind. I mind. I don’t like myself when I pretend. But I don’t necessarily like the risks associated with authenticity, either. I like myself when I’m authentic, but I don’t always like the consequences — the sacrifice it entails.
My heroes, the people I admire and respect the most, all fall into the category of authentic. Which also means brave. I can’t imagine cowardness and authenticity coexisting.
But how can you be sure someone is authentic. I know of only one way.
Did they sacrifice?
If they did, it’s a pretty good indication they are real — that they truly believed what they were saying, and truly possessed the compassion and sense of justice they seemed to embody.
If they didn’t, then they probably were just one more hollow preacher or politician or everyday Joe who says one thing and does another. Or just one more business person who doesn’t blink an eye without first calculating how it might help or hurt his career or build or tarnish his image. Or just one more professor who pontificates without ever actually doing anything. Or just one more person like me who takes bold stands but, in the end, often succumbs to fear and fails to do that which he knows to be right and necessary. Or does the right thing but clumsily and in a manner than doesn’t end up changing much of anything.
I’ve had only one hero in my lifetime: Roberto Clemente. He was a great ballplayer. One of the all-time greats. But he was far more than that. He was a man who cared deeply about others. On New Year’s eve in 1972, when many people were either partying or spending time with their families, Roberto took off on a flight from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua, on a relief mission to help victims of a major earthquake in that poor country. The plane went into the ocean, and that was the end. Sacrifice.
Other people I deeply admire and respect include Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., soldiers who died or were maimed in battle fighting a just cause, firemen who enter a burning building to save a life, dads who toiled their entire adult lives at a boring assembly line job or deep in the earth in a coal mine to provide for their families, people who lose their jobs because they dared to stand firm for what was right, and many others who gave of themselves for no other reason than to save or help another life. In each case, sacrifice.
Sometimes the sacrifice is seen by others; often, it isn’t. Sometimes the beneficiaries of the sacrifice have no idea what someone else endured for their benefit. But it’s still sacrifice. And real. And authentic.
So why, you might wonder, do some people sacrifice for others, particularly for people they might not even know?
The best I can come up with is this: They can do no other.
Sacrifice is fed, I suspect, by compassion and a deep and insatiable yearning for a better world.
Moreover, I suspect sacrifice and fakery simply can’t coexist. They can’t stand to be in the same room together. In the same heart. I suspect that, in sacrificial moments or lives, the individual can’t contemplate anything but the real and genuine. He or she is incapable of pretending, and simply cannot countenance the thought of allowing fear to win.
It’s not that such people embrace sacrifice. They don’t, for if they did, it would be selfish. And fake. Sacrifice, when real, forces itself onto people. Into their lives. They don’t fear it. But I don’t think for a moment they welcome it. That’s what makes it real. And authentic. And inspiring.
Sometimes sacrifice stems from an intentional life and decisions that the person knew entailed great risk. Jesus and MLK fall into this category. Sometimes the sacrificial act was impulsive or a selfless reaction.
There’s much about this phenomenon that I don’t understand. But I am certain that I fall into Ms. Swisher’s camp, Vera: sacrifice moves me. It inspires me. It challenges me.
It challenges me because it moves and inspires me. So it must be real. It must be grounded in the divine. Or at the very least in my soul. It is part of my essence.
And, so, how can one ignore it and fully be oneself?
I don’t think you can.
I have sacrificed in my life, but only in relatively minor ways. But they were real nonetheless. Each brought pain. Some inflicted deep wounds for which I will carry the scars to the grave. I suspect I’m no different from most people in that regard.
But mostly I feel like a spectator to sacrifice. I feel like someone who is moved and inspired by others’ sacrifice, not someone who moves others and inspires through sacrifice of my own.
That’s fine, I suppose, for no one should seek out sacrifice. But how should I respond to this thing that moves me?
Prepare, I suppose. Or at least that’s what I think. I hesitate to suggest others should do the same.
I do think, however, that each life will be presented with moments when the right thing will require sacrifice. Perhaps a minor one. Perhaps a major one. It is in those moments, I suspect, that we are called to choose our path. To decide what matters most to us. What we love the most. Our comforts? Longevity? Or something else? It is in those moments, or days, or years, that we decide whom we are. And whom we want to be. It is in those moments that we find out whether we can do no other.
We may have time to ponder. We might not.
Who are we? What do we love more than anything else? What are we willing to risk our very lives for?
These are questions that are worthy of your consideration, Vera. These are questions that I have wrestled with often. Sometimes, in hindsight, I’ve liked the answers I came up with. Sometimes, they embarrassed me. Sometimes, the answers were illusive.
What I do know, however, with certitude that is rare, is that people like Clemente, MLK, and, above all, Jesus, move me and inspire me. In a strange way I can neither explain nor understand, I have fallen in love with them. Neither time nor distance is of any consequence. The love is real.
It wasn’t all that long ago that I came to realize this. For a long time, I thought what was required was to be like them. To walk in their path, or at least in their shadow. Yet I knew it was impossible. I didn’t have their talents. Their wisdom. Their courage. In short, I wasn’t good enough.
It was at a particularly difficult time in my life that a new realization came to light. I can’t explain how or why. Suffice it to say that it was what some might call mystical. In any case, it was at that moment that I realized that it wasn’t about being like them, which was unobtainable; rather, it was simply about falling in love. And being accepting of that which is real. And the risks. As well as the rewards. It was then I realized not all suffering is the same.
It was about removing the mask. And seeing in others that which resides behind the masks. And not mistaking the mask for the wearer.
And it was about allowing the power of sacrifice to penetrate the mask and melt away the fear.
It was about realizing that sacrifice is not a risk or threat or something to be avoided at all cost. But that it is simply the noble, inspiring product of things and forces that are far more dangerous — things that seek to divert our eyes from that which is true, authentic and good.
Nassim Taleb recently wrote, “There is no virtue without risktaking and sacrifice.” I think he’s right.
Gold towers don’t move me or inspire me, Vera.
Sacrifice does. Virtue does. Real sacrifice. Authentic virtue. Not the fake kind.