Having recently returned from Italy, where images of sacrifice surrounded me, I find myself contemplating sacrifice and suffering. In the midst of co-leading a pilgrimage, I saw everywhere biblical images of sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac, Jesus), as well as images of saints who sacrificed wealth, health, and life itself.
“What do these images have to do with me?” I asked. Coming from a culture in which the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, I find the medieval preoccupation with sacrifice distant, strange, and even repulsive. Yet, precisely because of their strangeness, these images, I sense, have something to teach me.
Back home in the U. S. now, this is Memorial Day weekend, the day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for their country. In the midst of a “me”-centered culture, soldiers understand sacrifice in a way that most of us don’t. Soldiers sacrifice the comforts of home, risk life and limb, and ask their families to sacrifice their presence. If they are lucky enough to return home, they return with the physical and emotional scars of battle, facing the often insurmountable challenges of adjusting to re-entry into family and work.
What can we learn from these men and women in our midst who understand sacrifice so much better than most of us do? How can we begin to practice sacrifice in small ways, to contribute to the betterment of those around us? How does sacrifice relate to our day-to-day work lives?
Possibilities for small sacrifices abound. An employer might hire a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and provide him or her with the support needed to heal. Such an act is a small sacrifice compared to what the veteran has given. Or, in these tough economic times when layoffs become necessary, executives might give up part of their profit by investing in retraining workers and assisting them in finding new employment, as CoreStates Bank in Philadelphia did. Or, when layoffs occur and employees are asked to do more with less, someone might step in to go the extra mile and support a stressed co-worker.
What am I being invited to sacrifice? Perhaps it is something as simple as sacrificing an evening out in order to prepare well and offer my best work to participants in a program in which I am teaching. Or to sacrifice my carefully planned schedule to support my husband when he’s facing a work deadline. Or to sacrifice sleep to sit with a friend in the emergency room of a hospital.
Medieval saints and modern soldiers all have something to teach me. Inspired by them and with gratitude to them, I want to learn to practice appropriate sacrifice in my daily life.
(This post is a slight revision of a post that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in May 2012.)