It is a joke in the U.S. to say that any stories of difficulties your parents tell you are stories about walking to school uphill both ways.
I want to say that’s nothing. In Portugal, when I was little and we visited the shrine of Fatima, I was at first fascinated and later on repulsed by seeing people doing the long path through the terrace on their knees, sometimes helped by two or three people, because they’d come hundreds of miles on their knees and were not capable of doing it on their own anymore.
I don’t personally know anyone who’s done the hundred miles on their knees thing, but almost everyone I knew had done the “Walk to Fatima” thing. This was usually done in “payment” of great grace granted, but almost everyone I knew who had done it said they’d received more from the experience than the sacrifice they’d committed to.
What does this have to do with anything, unless I want to discuss medieval religious practices?
I was thinking the other day, rather, of the concept of sacrifice to obtain something. Whether you think it works with the Almighty or not, there used to be, from at least the Middle Ages and well into the last century, the idea that sacrifice was worth it because it helped shape you into someone different/more perseverant/more capable of enduring something bad for what you wanted.
Sure, it probably came from religious ideas, and Christian ideas at that, but the fact is that it permeated all of society.
Now… it’s not there. Oh, sure, people still say things like “no pain no gain,” but in practical fact, most people seem unable to apply sustained effort, much less sustained pain/sacrifice, and think there is a point to it.
I think society itself has become so secular that even those of us who are religious have lost sight of the idea that we’re perfecting ourselves toward some kind of eternal life that transcends and outlasts our life on Earth.
Seen in that light, even thirty years of sacrificing your pleasures and enduring, say, a bad job while we raised a family, was nothing, a drop in the bucket. And you came out of it stronger, more capable of great things.
But if you view this brief mortal life as all there is, then thirty years might be the only years when you’re at the peak of your physical form, and wasting them in a situation you hate/a painful position is wrong because you just frittered your life away. What is worth that?
Sure, and I’ve been known to say, the fact that we don’t endure unnecessary inconvenience, let alone pain, is what makes the U.S. great. We have convenience foods for when it’s too much effort to cook, we have pre-made coffee in the morning. We don’t pause to endure anything that need not be endured.
All of which is fine, except that even in the purely secular sense, there are times when enduring things gets you where you want to go, while not enduring them just leaves you not fully grown and mired in between stages.
Take for instance having children: most people are choosing not to have them, and having raised two boys, I can tell you they are insanely inconvenient and raising them is, at times, painful. It blights your career, it destroys your free time, and don’t ask me what it does to your sleep.
However, I can honestly say now that I’ve been through it, I can write longer, more focused, learn faster, be better at being who I am. (I’m not saying it applies to everyone, mind. I, myself almost was childless involuntarily. No judgment. Yet, without children, there’s no future, and children are pains. Sure, immensely rewarding, but you experience the pain first.)
A lot of “sacrifices” are like that. The hard and tedious work of memorizing French verbs pays off in fluency. The hard and oh my heavens SO tedious work of practicing typing pays off in being able to write faster and not needing to dictate.
Yet society seems to slowly be getting away from the idea that anyone should sacrifice anything. We flinch away from even fruitful work or mildly painful training. Most of our failed educational measures are to make learning fun all the time, which is actually impossible and leads to our producing half-baked graduates who can’t call up the basics at need.
And needless to say, our birth rate is plummeting. Which is a threat to our civilization. Failing to reproduce is the infallible way for the West to lose the culture wars.
As a society, as a culture, regardless of what individuals still believe, we seem to have lost sight of eternity and to be steering, blindly, by our limited human life span and immediate desires.
I’m not sure how to cure it, either. But those of us who believe we’re eternal should perhaps keep that in mind.
Gold is not much good unless it’s melted to be refined.
And sometimes it’s just the refining process. We have a long way to go until eternity, and small sacrifices on the way can only make us better.