Saturday, July 16, 2011

Part II - Self Denial DNE Self Sacrifice

In the last entry, I wrote about not being able to deny your way to happiness. This is an idea that's been lingering around the edges of my conscious thoughts for a while, but it wasn't until I started writing about these things that it crystallized for me. (As another important mentor, Dr. Cynthia King, told me, "If you want to know what you think about it, WRITE about it!" She was dead-on, as usual.)

At the end of that post, I touched on the idea that there is a difference between self-denial and self sacrifice.

Self-denial is giving up chocolate for Lent. At best, it's a test of our wills, to see what we can do when we really put our minds to it. People who report strong positive feelings after a period of fasting or a juice cleanse are getting the psychological boost that comes from meeting a personal commitment and achieving something through sheer force of will.

But at its worst, self-denial can degenerate into martyrdom and exhibitionism, a desperate performance that says, "Hey, look at me, see how GOOD I'm being by not allowing myself to have/do this thing?" This might be followed by "Don't you feel SORRY for me?" or "Aren't you IMPRESSED?" or, most usually, "Doesn't that make you LOVE me more?"

These aren't said out loud (usually). But we've all gotten the message, loud and clear.

And after all that, you feel needy and (possibly) pathetic, as well as grumpy that you didn't have any chocolate or bacon or whatever. And everybody feels awkward and put-upon and (possibly) uncomfortable around you. They stop returning your e-mails. They avoid your calls. And you end up even less happy than when you started.

So, if that's self-denial, what's self-sacrifice? I define the difference this way. Self-denial is for its own sake. There's no reason to do other than the act of denial. Self-sacrifice involves giving up something we want or that matters to us in service of a higher good.

And the highest good in the human experience is the well-being of others. And it doesn't matter if it's big or small. I give up eating the last of the Thin Mints so the Songwriter can have them at the end of a bad day. My grandfather gives up his every waking hour (seriously, three jobs) to put his six girls through private school. Millions of everyday people give their time, money, and sometimes their lives to create better communities or a safer world.

We recognize self-sacrifice and we respond to it. That's why it's so popular in movies and fiction. It moves us.

It's when we give up something that matters, to us, or someone else, or preferably both, that we create meaning. We're humans. We like meaning. We're wired for it. We search for it. And if we can't find any, we'll try and make something up, to get us through the night.

Look, I'm not saying we all need to be Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. Just that we should quit pretending that self-denial is about anything other than ourselves and our own egos. That isn't going to make us feel any better. But thinking about meaningful ways to give something to others, instead of giving something up, just might.


  1. Oh, yes. That distinction makes a lot of sense. I try not to get into the self-denial mode, but it does happen. And from there it's a short trip to self-flagellation, which doesn't help anyone.

  2. I have been really terrible (in the past, totally in the past, certainly not NOW, heavens, no) about the hand-waving "See how GOOD I am?!" thing, which is totally the roots of martyrdom.

    And as you say, the trip between that ans self-flagellation is indeed short and unproductive.

    Hang in there, Jenn!