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The Value of Sacrifice

I grew up in a devout but benevolent kind of Roman Catholicism and, even though I left my faith at 14, the church left a permanent stamp on the way I see the world. I hear from many people who feel scarred by early religious experiences, but in my childhood, faith was a source of wonder, awe, love, comfort, and delight. It wasn’t trauma or rage that sent me away from the church, just profound disagreement (social, political, and philosophical) and the need to find answers elsewhere. I consider myself fortunate for that because it enabled me to keep the important lessons of a religious upbringing while discarding the unworkable and unhealthy. Among the lessons I’ve kept is the value of sacrifice.

We sacrificed in many small ways in the Catholicism of my family. For one thing, we didn’t touch meat on Friday—no exceptions, ever. For the forty days of lent, we all gave up something we enjoyed: watching TV, going to movies, having friends over. We also fasted before mass every Sunday morning as part of the spiritual preparation before taking communion. 

These were hardly austere ascetic practices, but they had a surprisingly profound effect on me. Even today, I am surprised to hear people talk about such activities as pointless or silly, as if they were remnants of some ancient cult of flagellation. In fact, learning to make spiritual sacrifices is something I’ve brought with me not only into my spiritual practice, but into my writing life. Sacrifice, I’ve found, has surprising benefits in both dimensions.

Sacrifice gets you to focus on what is really important. So many of the things we think we can’t live without are just distractions. We think we can’t get through an hour without checking our email. We absolutely have to watch our favorite show on Thursday night. We couldn’t possibly turn down a chance to go out with our friends.

But maybe we could. Maybe if we chose to give up some of those activities for a set period of time—one day a week, one week a month, one month a year—we would see how much time we waste on them. Maybe we could use that time to refocus on the truly meaningful things in our lives—like writing. Perhaps we would see that the things we think are so enjoyable are actually sidetracking our development as writers and as human beings.

Sacrifice reminds you to be mindful. The best way to become aware of how you experience something is to do without it. Minor deprivations heighten our senses and sharpen our perceptions. If you doubt that, try going without your favorite food or entertainment for a few weeks, and see how delightful it is when you go back to it.

That mindfulness can have a powerful effect on the way you write about experiences. If you want to write well about something you enjoy, don’t immerse yourself in it, deprive yourself of it. Want to come up with a luminous description of the taste of dark chocolate, cold beer, or a scrumptious slice of sourdough bread? Stop eating it (especially if you’re used to eating it often). See how vivid an experience becomes in your writing when you are doing without it in your life.

Sacrifice increases discipline. Most writers fight a never-ending battle with self-discipline. It is simply hard to sit down and write every day when you’ve got a million other things to do, a new load of rejection slips in your email, and no end in sight to that novel.

The truth is, discipline is a habit. It  takes practice, and a lot of it. Making small, regular sacrifices is one of the best ways to get into the habit of sticking to things even if they don’t feel fun in the short term. The point is to make a commitment to yourself, then keep it. Think of it this way: If you cannot keep a commitment to give up sweets for forty days, how can you expect to keep a commitment to finish a novel that might take five years?

Sacrifice prepares you for a breakthrough. I can’t explain the strangely opening and purifying effect minor sacrifices have on a person. I don’t know why giving up small pleasures readies you for change. What I do know is that clearing away those superficial recreations and amusements can create subtle but powerful shifts in your consciousness—shifts that can open up new, fresh channels of creativity.

It is not surprising that sacrifice has played such a vital role in the world’s spiritual traditions: the 25-hours of fasting at Yom Kippur, the month-long fast of Ramadan, the challenges of yogic practice and austerities of Buddhism. They come not from some grim, ancient urge to experience suffering, but from an awareness of the enormous benefits they can bring to personal awareness and growth.