I have a fantasy in which the people who make the points I like best use language that makes sense. The way I look at it, the language I use actually does make sense and if these other people would just use it, it would make me happy.
As you might suspect, I have an example in mind. David Brooks wrote a column today in which he appreciated Tim Keller’s insight into life in a very broad way. One of the teachings Brooks cites is Keller’s emphasis on what he calls “self-sacrifice.”
I love the idea. I strongly dislike the language.
Here is the idea: “The only way forward is to recognize that your own selfishness is the only selfishness you can control; your self-centeredness is the problem here. Love is an action, not just an emotion, and the marriage will only thrive if both people in it make daily sacrificial commitments to each other, learning to serve and, harder still, be served. “Whether we are husband or wife,” the Kellers wrote, “we are not to live for ourselves but for the other. And that is the hardest yet single most important function of being a husband or a wife in marriage.”
What kind of thing is this “self” that is sacrificed in building a stable cooperative marriage? The first step is to define “the self” as a shrunken grasping little demon. In order to work, this will have to be an essential description. This not something all of us are vulnerable to from time to time. This has to be who we truly are all the time. This is what a “self” is.
Well…that’s nonsense. Selves are much more complex; they are also dynamic. They are mixtures of traits we approve of and traits we deplore. They are not things that need to be sacrificed.
If a self is necessarily and essentially as defined above, there is no reason not to sacrifice it. But who will do the sacrificing? Who else is there? You see the problem. Even the proposed treatment defies the diagnosis.
Here’s some better language. In offering this language, I have nothing more in mind that to affirm the “message” Keller was preaching according to Brooks. In order to achieve a very important thing—real relationship—you have to curtail some aspects of your self. Which aspects? Those that are incompatible with the new good that you want to pursue.
How bad is that? I desire to love and serve, and to be loved and served by, my partner. Together, we can be so much more than either of us could be alone. So I sacrifice the parts of my life that are incompatible with this new relationship; I do it willingly and gladly because I want what I can have only if I do.
It’s all good. It’s not all fun, but it is all good.
This is no more “self-sacrifice” than the changes a high-scoring point guard makes in adapting to a new team. He can’t be ignored by the defense because everyone knows he is a good shot. So he becomes the team leader in assists; the team thrives; the fans are ecstatic. What has been “sacrificed?” The old role.
The language of self-sacrifice does us all a disservice. What the self gains by sustained and mutually beneficial exchange does not need to be sacrificed. Such an active and thriving self does not need to be sacrificed. It needs to be celebrated.