Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard lots of deep concern and appreciation for the medical personnel who are on the frontline confronting the COVID-19 epidemic, risking exposure and literally putting their own health — and that of their family’s — at risk.
I’ve also had conversations with physicians about it, and I’m truly inspired by them. The three I talked to have said, “I know that as a doctor I will most likely contract the virus. It is the nature of the current fight against the virus that doctors are taken out in waves as they contract it, but all of us who get better and can return to work, we shall have immunity and the ability to treat infected people with no further concern of contracting it again.”
Some doctors who have fallen ill are glad to have contracted it so that their bodies build resistance to it so they can return to treating patients without further worry.
All of these conversations are making me think about the nature of sacrifice. The word sacrifice comes from the Latin, sacrocere, which has the same root as the word “sacred.” Sacrifice originally meant “to make sacred, to make holy.” To give something up of great material value on behalf of a larger or transcendent value. A sacrifice is a signal that what you’re making a sacrifice for is more important than what you are offering up — and what you’re offering up may be the most valuable thing you have.
In the early biblical times, the Jews didn’t eat meat much because meat was so expensive, especially beef. When the ancient Jewish people offered up a fatted calf to Yahweh, they were offering up the most valuable thing they had for the sake of being in right relationship with their god.
Lately, all around the world, people have been called upon to give up their independence, to sacrifice our freedom to move about wherever and with whomever we want, and instead sequester ourselves at home for the sake of curbing the spread of the
coronavirus. Sure, you may say, most everyone is staying at home to protect themselves and their loved ones. Yes, and …
I’d like to suggest, in the words of the late UU minister A. Powell Davies: “There’s a sort of duality in each of us, a conversation within our innermost thoughts. Some of us will call the nobler voice within to be the voice of God — not literally of course, but in source and spiritual vitality. Others of us will call it our better nature. But no matter what we call it, its presence is a firm reality.”
We cultivate our inner lives, and thereby raise the quality of all our living, by giving specific time and attention to discerning and participating in this better nature of ours. I call this cultivation of our inner thoughts with our heart and spirit, “spiritual practice.” As Davies says, “To the extent that we see the world more clearly and ourselves and our part in it more plainly, we gain wisdom, clarity, sureness of direction; and this, in turn, relieves the tension that the world imposes on us — much of which is due to vacillation and uncertainty — and brings us closer to serenity.”
Who would have thought that in the year 2020, the world economy would be brought to its knees. It’s really scary what’s happening — all the uncertainty and anxiety. In today’s American culture, sacrifice seems foolhardy. Why ever give up something of special material value? But from another perspective, one where there is faith in love, a deep affirmation of the worth and dignity of all people, a recognition that we are all interconnected, how can we not give the best of ourselves and what we have for the sake of others, especially others who are suffering?
For us today and in every era, what is more important than money? What is more important than our independence? What is more important than even our own health and well-being? In this time, we are all called upon to make sacrifices.
I’ve enjoyed listening to the exuberant expressions of gratitude each day at 8 p.m. This outpouring of spirit celebrates our health-care workers. Let’s also think about who also is putting themselves at risk of exposure each and every day: grocery store staff, pharmacy workers, truck drivers, garbage collectors, people who harvest our food, prepare it or work at the factories to process or wrap it. It’s also a time to honor the service of police and firefighters — and firefighters are also EMTs who do ambulance duty. I am grateful for all these people who are leaving their families several days a week for the sake of the well-being of the rest of us. This a time to reflect on the various levels of sacrifice that so many people are making, on behalf of our common good.
We’re in the middle of a transition that will affect our society for the rest of our lives. The way we approach it will shape who we are as individuals and as a wider society. White Eagle, an indigenous Hopi leader, wrote recently (I got this from Adrienne Marie Brown on social media): “This moment humanity is going through can now be seen as a portal and as a hole. The decision to fall into the hole or go through the portal is up to you. If they don’t repent of the problem and consume the news 24 hours a day, with little energy, nervous all the time, with pessimism, they will fall into the hole. But if you take this opportunity to look at yourself, rethink life and death, take care of yourself and others, you will cross the portal.”
A friend said, “It’s like our whole culture is going through a birth canal, and what is being birthed is a deeper awareness of how interdependent we are.” At least those of us who are willing to look at ourselves, to rethink life and death, to commit to caring for
ourselves and others — it is like going through a long birth canal, from which we will emerge, grounded in love.
What do you want to make sacred at this time? What greater good gives your life purpose and meaning? What is worthy of your time and attention and resources? Where are you called to sacrifice at this time?
I talked with a father of retirement age whose son is a doctor leading the response to COVID-19 at a local hospital. He had been asked what he’d do if his son gets extremely ill. The father said that he would go and tend to his son, risking his own health. Sometimes we are called to sacrifice what is materially most precious to us.
This is a time to discern what we are willing to sacrifice for. Such decisions are being made millions of times all over the world. May we help midwife a world where there is a greater recognition of the wisdom of sacrifice. May we cultivate our own spiritual practices to live fully and with love at our side, love infused in every cell of our body — so that we embody this wisdom.
Rev. Alan Taylor is senior minister of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park.