Sunday, 17 June 2012


I'm writing this from bed, after a week during which I got some kind of cold or flu thing, completely lost my voice for a couple of days, and am now feeling just about well enough to hang out drinking tea and taking ginseng (there's more evidence that it might help colds than there is for echinacea, which is a very expensive placebo!)

At the same time, Cat has been writing about sacrifice, and has sparked a lot of debate on the subject. I had been thinking a lot about sacrifice before that, although I hadn't put it into those terms. I don't agree with everything Cat says, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about the subject since, and the debate around it has been fascinating.

In Cat's most recent post on the subject, she asked her readers to reflect on what we give up voluntarily, not through obligation. But in my experience, a lot of sacrifice comes out of the social situation we inhabit. We value that which we don't have much of, and that's about the situation we're in. To give up some of your food to the gods, in a rural, subsistence economy, when you don't know for how long food will be plentiful, and in famine too, is far more of a sacrifice than giving up part of a meal is for us. That's what I imagine our ancestors did as sacrifice. Of course, that's a romanticised notion - they were probably also involved in all sorts of sacrifices that we would find distasteful (archaeological and other evidence suggests they were, although we can't be completely sure). I think that's part of what Nimue is critiquing about the concept of sacrifice. But I don't think there's anything wrong with being inspired by a concept that our ancestors (may have) shared and modifying it to fit with the wisdom we have now - even if that's easily dismissed as romanticism. And it's this idea of contextual sacrifice, of giving voluntarily from within a situation that you didn't choose, that I find the most useful and profound.

I don't believe that this has to mean medieval Christian-style martyrdom. There's a difference between feeling sorry for yourself or feeling that you have to suffer, and willingly working within the constraints that your life imposes. I could pretend that my disability doesn't make my life difficult, as the disability rights movement sometimes goes overboard trying to prove, but it does. There is crap in my life that I rarely talk about. My social context, as a disabled person, means that even blogging and podcasting are sacrifices. There is really very little useful time in my life - when I'm not sick, in pain, needing to rest, or having to do things much more slowly and painfully than I used to - and there's much that I want to accomplish in those little slivers of useful time. So I have to think very carefully before, for example, committing to putting out a podcast episode that takes between 10 and 20 hours of planning, recording and editing time. It means I go without many other things that I'd like to do, and it's a sacrifice. Of course, blogging and podcasting and all those other interesting things I do are a privilege and a joy, too, not just a sacrifice. But it would be dishonest of me to pretend that these things are all about fluffy clouds and dancing in meadows. And more importantly, the struggle is something I'm proud of, not ashamed of. Not always - sometimes I'd much rather hide my differences and pretend everything is great in my life, because of some misguided idea that I'll 'fit in' better that way. But I think something is more valuable if you've worked hard for it. For me, sacrifice is about giving up something that really means something. My time and energy are worth a great deal to me. Other things are much easier for me to give up, but they might be exactly the things that someone else has in short supply - for them, something else is a sacrifice.

I'm thinking of my mum, who managed to get a higher degree despite having two young children and absolutely no time, and who taught me far more about the value of studying for degrees than my Oxford-educated dad who got his degree at 21 when he was living in a posh college and had no distractions. Or my wife, who, when I got very ill six months into our relationship, dealt with it in ways that I never expected from anyone. She's spent many years looking after me, when I don't doubt that other people would have left as soon as things got difficult. At our wedding, she said that "If you can really say 'for poorer - for worse - in sickness', you're with the right person," and made everyone cry. If I went next-door to her study now and asked her if it was a sacrifice, she'd probably laugh at me. Not everyone thinks of these things in the same way. I know how difficult it's been for her, though. These are situations that are partly about the imposition of circumstances, and partly about free choice. For me, the balance between the two is what makes them sacrifices.

I'm uncomfortable with the negativity I often hear from Pagans towards the Christian concept of sacrifice. Unfortunately, I think it's widely misunderstood by non-Christians. The idea that Jesus was some kind of blood sacrifice to appease a tyrannical god is only one, minority way of seeing the Cross. There are other interpretations, some that have more in common with Odin's self-sacrifice on the world tree. In the Gnostic Christian mythos, Jesus willingly sacrifices himself to redeem the fallen Sophia,* redeeming wisdom for humanity. It's a sacrifice myth, like many of the other myths that reflect the incredible sacrifices that are involved in seeking wisdom, as Cat talks about in her post in relation to Jesus and the Buddha. That's the way I see sacrifice, in both a Christian and a Pagan context - life-altering, comfort zone-destroying, Gnosis-seeking. Looking at it that way, most of the time I feel like it's entirely beyond me. I'm far too weak to sacrifice anything serious for Gnosis, or to the gods. I feel guilty all the time that I'm not doing 'enough'. But at the same time, if sacrifice is related to what I have to offer (as I always believed in a Christian context), then my use of my resources is what matters.

I don't say very much here, or anywhere really, about my developing relationship with my gods. I don't get along with the 'archetypes' concept of the gods, and I worry that people will think me silly or naive if I share my own views on deity, so I mostly don't. But the gods are central to my spirituality (and I'm really bored of trying to pretend otherwise). This summer, my gods have been pushing me outside of my comfort zone. Not much, but enough that I feel it. I'm working on facing my fears and doing things I wouldn't of my own accord. This probably wouldn't look like much from the outside - lots of other people would do these things without thinking, and I'm sure they could also think of better things I could be doing. But I have to work with my own resources. That's the only raw material the gods have to work with, if I want them to help me to do things with my life. That's what I sacrifice to them, but it's also a sacrifice to myself. Along the way, they seem to want me to answer my own prayers. I think that's all right with me.

This post took all day to write. I'm left thinking about whether I envy people who can bash out a blog post in an hour and forget about it. Probably, but then I wouldn't have thought about this as deeply as I have. Sacrifice is meaningful even when it arises from circumstances you wouldn't choose - and maybe more so.

*Gnosticism reverses many familiar Christian interpretations - many Gnostics see the snake in the Garden of Eden as an avatar of Sophia, and Eve as a saint who chose wisdom rather than ignorance.

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