Our western culture, either by tradition or because of some intrinsic law of humanity, maintains a pantheon for those whose lives have been regarded as a sacrifice for humankind. In this way, “sacrifice” does not necessarily indicate that a person died for others. Oftentimes, a person’s renown comes from how the person lives for others. Mahatma Gandhi, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Malala Yousafzai all lived or live as examples of highly spiritual ideals put into action, regardless of the dangers. They were and are living examples of people grounded in what is “right and true” according to our culture’s moral, ethical or spiritual standards. They represent the living sacrifices that we are all encouraged to make for the sake of others and for our better selves: holding fast to an ideal of the unassailable dignity of our fellow humans and acting on the belief that the least of one of us is just as worthy of charity, love, compassion, and freedom as we ourselves are.
There are also those whose sacrifice is revealed in their death. Martyrs who were willing to give up their precious life in order to fully live out their belief rather than save their life by betraying themselves or others. Socrates, Joan of Arc, and Galileo Galilei can all be said to have been martyred for their beliefs, whether it was through brutal death on a flaming pyre, the declining health of a convicted heretic sentenced to house arrest, or a death sentence carried out voluntarily by his own hand, all three of these historical figures left a profound legacy by punctuating a greater truth by their willingness to die for it.
One quality common to all these people mentioned is a certain remarkable poise, a presence of mind and soul never abandoned or bartered away in the face of either the fear of death or death itself. These people of sacrifice have become heroes for humankind, not always because of some sweeping cinematic action to which they responded powerfully and selflessly in the moment where it mattered most, like the young Chinese man who defied the Maoist government by standing up to a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. They are not necessarily like St. Maximilian Kolbe, who quietly volunteered to die in the place of another prisoner at Auschwitz. They are also those many first responders who on any given day run toward gunfire, or flaming buildings, or volatile scenes of danger where the injured lay dying. They are those very injured ones at the scene who realize that they have unexpectedly come face to face with their mortality and death. And, they are those patients who are dying alone at home or in a hospital bed, refusing to give up on their deep belief and trust that there is a God who loves them no matter what happens. This presence of mind and soul, this remarkable poise represents a clarity of mind and of purpose. There is no confusion, no desperation, no cowardice.
Each day we all come face to face with events, moments, and conversations where we have a choice to either hold to the center of our deepest understanding of the truth or turn from it, ignore it, dilute it or barter it away completely in order to “save ourselves.” When we give in to our fears and human frailty, we are simply being human, and there are important lessons to be learned in those moments, lessons we can take into the next experience as we continue to refine our mettle. Then, when we do maintain our moral, ethical, and spiritual poise, we achieve a victory, no matter how small it may seem, for our own soul as well as for all those whose lives we touch. Such experiences are transformative and proceed outward into the world and into the hearts of those willing to pay attention to it.
Most of us will live our lives experiencing this more subtle and continual form of sacrifice. Most of us will not be put to the ultimate test all in a single moment. We will not be faced with the choice of running into the burning building to save the small child or helplessly standing by. We will not have to choose between denouncing our deepest held beliefs or suffering execution. Yet, we will all face death in this lifetime, whether it comes gradually or suddenly. And how one responds in the moment, or in those moments (or even days or months after a terminal diagnosis, for example) means a great deal, not only to oneself, but potentially to countless others who are desperately looking for evidence of the higher self when it seems to be lacking or missing altogether in themselves.
For us to bear witness to the dignity, the poise, and the clarity of those who have faced death without losing their faith is to receive a great and true spiritual gift. We can and should hold such a gift in our heart, and, with a renewed strength, aspire to such a level of true greatness in our own lives, both in this very moment and at the moment of our own death.