As a result of his head injury, Joe also lost his fiancée, his excellent social skills, and the life he assumed he would live. Now he works nights, emptying the school garbage and trimming the shrubbery every now and then while his dog waits in the car. When asked if he wishes things were different, Joe still says, “Yeah, I wish I could have saved Brian. I would have gladly died for him.”The drive to make a personal difference, whether by living a life of service or rising to the occasion when it becomes clear that someone must, is the essence of self-sacrifice. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Self-sacrifice is the real miracle out of which all the reported miracles grow.” Martin Luther King Jr. asserted “every man must decide whether he will walk in the creative light of altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s persistent and most urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
In the spirit of PPND’s July theme, I nominate self-sacrifice as the 25th strength, based on the following ten criteria defined by the Values in Action (VIA) project.
- It is fulfilling to engage in self-sacrifice, providing a sense of accomplishment beyond mere achievement for oneself. A self-sacrificing individual, for example, while perhaps recognizing competing desires, would naturally choose sacrifice over mere generosity and would feel personal growth as a result. People who give up a high paying job to teach in an inner city school come to mind.
- Certainly it is morally valued. And, as Jon Haidt reminds us in The Happiness Hypothesis, observing the self-sacrifice of others can result in elevation. Unlike simply appreciating beauty and excellence, observing self-sacrifice encourages us to behave similarly. While nearly anyone might have the potential to make a sacrifice on the behalf of another, it is a true character strength of only some.
- A true self-sacrifice does not diminish others; it builds upon the dignity of others. For this reason suicide bombers are not self-sacrificial. Blowing oneself up may be the fulfillment of a life’s dream and may even be morally valued by one’s culture. However by definition and intent, it diminishes (and literally reduces) others. On the other hand, the peaceful protests of civil rights marchers and lunch-counter sitters demonstrated self-sacrifice even though it exposed them to the risk of being heckled, arrested or even lynched.
- Self-sacrifice has non-felicitous opposites including selfishness, coldness, thoughtlessness, inconsiderateness, and egoism, all of which are unappealing.
- Self-sacrifice is also trait-like. The strength of self-sacrifice belongs to the defining essence of a person, and is not merely the result of actions one has willed oneself to do. A self-sacrificing person will easily be identified as such. Self-sacrifice is specifically listed as one of Gordon Allport’s cardinal traits, ones that dominate personality across time and situation, and which when fully developed (likely late in life), might become the most important component of one’s personality.
- Self-sacrifice is distinct from other positive traits. It requires acting in ways that promote the flourishing of others rather than merely caring for their momentary need. Profound self-sacrifice may require other strengths such as love, kindness or spirituality to be very highly developed. In fact, nearly all of the other strengths may be the “best supporting cast” which help blend compassion–the sense that we are bound to one another and that suffering must be alleviated, and citizenship–the idea that we are specifically responsible to one another because we share resources. Even temperance strengths such as prudence, modesty and self-regulation which are superficially ones of “not-doing” contribute to the actions of self-sacrifice. A person who gives sacrificially must subjugate one’s own needs on behalf of others, the ultimate in self-regulation.
- A striking paragon of self-sacrifice is Oskar Schindler, the Sudetenland war profiteer whose daring opportunism saved over 1000 Jews from certain death in Nazi concentration camps. Despite any number of opportunities to save himself and his wife, Schindler instead found ways to successfully lie to and bribe the SS men who regularly inspected his factory for noncompliance with Nazi Aryanization policies. Remarkably, Schindler survived the war. But clearly he would had to have been willing to die every day. Not so lucky as Schindler were the self-sacrificing van Pels family, who protected Anne Frank and family in their annex despite knowing of the huge risk and improbable success of providing sanctuary to Jewish families. Caught for his devotion to them, Herr van Pels was gassed in a concentration camp.
- Self-sacrifice is selectively absent in such people, though it is highly valued and depended upon in civilizations.
- Prodigies of self-sacrifice such as Joan of Arc or Sister Teresa are found in the saints of religious history, and more quietly among children who collect their allowance and give it to the poor.
- Numerous institutions and rituals support the development and recognition of self-sacrifice. All the world’s major religions value self-sacrifice. Societies in general try to cultivate this strength. In American schools, character development values self-sacrifice through community service of students, and by instituting specific character development goals and curricula, and by naming students for awards when they take action by using this strength.
Self-sacrifice is also a theme abundant in literature, particularly classics read in schools. Charlotte, the gray spider who tends, befriends and ultimately saves Wilbur the Pig in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. She chooses her role in a way that clearly transcends friendship, and uses her signature strengths in the service of her sense of purpose, saving Wilbur from becoming ham and bacon. While she is completely devoted to helping Farmer Zuckerman discover that he is the owner of “some pig”, her “magnum opus”–a case containing her 513 spiderlings—is the achievement of which she is most proud. Her work complete, the languishing Charlotte quietly dies.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the wise and open-minded Atticus Finch sacrifices his reputation and nearly his children’s lives when he stands up for integrity, truth, justice and love of humanity, rightly defending a case he cannot win for all the wrong reasons.Aristotle entreats us to ask: How ought I to act? What kind of person ought I to be?
Anne Frank noted in her diary, “How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Moral living–being responsible and responsive to others– requires us to make choices. The simple answer to Aristotle’s questions about our behavior is “self-sacrificing.”
In Tending the Heart of Virtue, Vigen Guroian calls this choice “creative fidelity to a greater good”. Whether it exists entirely separately from the other 24 strengths, is the culmination of them, is its own virtue category, or is some combination of these, self-sacrifice should be included in Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues.
Frank, Anne (1953). Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.. Pocket Books, New York.
Guroian, Vigen, (1998) Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. Oxford University Press, USA
Lee, Harper (2006) To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, New York.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
White, E.B. (2001) Charlotte’s Web. Harper Collins, New York.
Taps at Arlington courtesy of BL 1961
Martin Luther King, Jr. Leaning on a Lectern by Marion Trikosko from Wikipedia Commons
Hands from movit_2it’s flickr photo stream
Mother Teresa by Turelio from Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0 Germany
Diary of Anne Frank from fhenglishlab.wikispaces.com