Positive Psychology of Self-Sacrifice
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
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There is a tragic ring to the term self-sacrifice.
It conjures up images of Christ crucified, soldiers killed on battle
fields or suicide-bombers blown to pieces along with their innocent
victims. How can self-sacrifice be positive? Is self-sacrifice the
highest expression of virtue or the worst form of human folly? Who
benefits from self-obliteration? How can one reconcile self-sacrifice
with self-actualization? During my recent trip to Hong Kong and
China, I began to gain some insight to these puzzling questions.
They died fighting for a life worth living
I visited the birth place and former residence
Yat sen, who overthrew Qing Dynasty to establish the first Republic
of China. I also visited the tombs of young revolutionaries who
gave their lives for the vision articulated by Dr. Sun.
Millions have died fighting for the same ideals
of freedom, democracy and equality. The cost of their self-sacrifice
is immeasurable when we take into account the pain and grief of
their surviving loved ones. Have they died in vain? What have they
achieved with their ultimate sacrifice? Corruption, oppression,
injustice and inequality are still with us. Once in power, successful
revolutionaries tend to repeat the evil of their predecessors. This
again calls for a new wave of idealists to risk their lives for
a better world. Thus, the struggle for illusive ideals continues
indefinitely, because power and privilege tend to erase the bloody
lessons from history.
Is it worth sacrificing so many precious lives
for some abstract ideals? But what is the alternative? Just imagine
a world in which no one is willing to stand up for what is right,
and no one dares to challenge the corrupt dictators. When the righteous
go hiding, evil will spread unchecked. When the fragile flame of
idealism is extinguished, there will be no more hope for the suffering
masses, and no more escape for the oppressed.
Many have died fighting for ideals, because
they loved these ideals more than their own lives, and they loathed
a miserable, meaningless existence more than death itself. In fact,
one way to discover the meaning of life is find out whether we have
something worth dying for. If we consider life is not worth living
without freedom, democracy and equality, then fighting and dying
for these ideals is worth it. This kind of sacrifice is unique to
the human species, because they are not fighting for mere survival
- they are prepared to die fighting for a life that is worth living.
Dreams never die as long as there are people willing to die for
Idealism versus terrorism
But there is a dark side to idealism. What immediately
springs to mind are the suicide-bombers. Are they martyrs or are
they terrorists? What is the difference between idealism and terrorism?
Is it simply a matter of different perspectives?
There are at least three ways to work through
this ethical entanglement. The first question to consider is: What
is the objective for their self-sacrifice? Are they motivated
by their love for freedom, justice and equality or are they driven
by hostility and hate?
The second question to ask is:
What is their means of achieving their ideals? Martyrs achieve
their ideals through living and dying for what they believe -- they
are persecuted and killed for their ideals. Suicide bombers, on
the other hand, are terrorists because they pursue their ideals
by killing innocent people.
Finally, we can ask: Who
is doing the self-sacrifice? Is the act of self-sacrifice
performed by people of sound mind and free will or committed by
fanatics and puppets? We can no more separate the sacrifice from
the sacrificer than we can disentangle the giving from the giver.
More vigorous philosophical analysis is needed
to work through the above three criteria. For the time being, these
simple guidelines at least point out some possible ways to differentiate
between the positive, beneficial kind of self-sacrifice and the
negative, destructive type of self-sacrifice.
Self-sacrifice and Chinese positive psychology
Let's now consider in more detail the positive
kind of self-sacrifice. When I prepared for a talk on Chinese positive
psychology in Hong Kong, I could not help but think about the spirit
of self-sacrifice prevalent in traditional Chinese families. Chinese
positive psychology is collectivistic and paradoxical. The good
life is defined by what is good for the family, for the group, rather
than just for the self. It is through self-sacrifice for the larger
good that one experiences true joy and fulfillment.
It is common for individuals to sacrifice themselves
for the welfare of their family: Children show filial piety by putting
their parents' interests above their own. Similarly, in poor families,
parents toil day and night to send their children to college; brothers
and sisters are willing to combine their resources to support the
one with the best prospect of academic success; and older siblings
are expected to assume the responsibility to look after younger
The same kind of self-sacrifice and caring can
also be found in villages, where neighbors and village elders often
work together to help individuals with a pressing problem. As they
work together to solve the problem, the burden is lightened. There
is power in numbers, strength in unity and joy in harmony. Nothing
seems insurmountable when people band together with one mind and
It makes perfect sense that collective coping
should take over, when individual coping mechanisms prove inadequate
in the face of overwhelming difficulties. The resilience of Chinese
people throughout their long and often turbulent history is largely
due to their culture that values self-sacrifice for the collective
Historically, the system of dynasty in China
has been a fertile ground for breeding corrupt tyrants. When people
cannot depend on the Government to take care of their problems,
and when the central Government is the main source of their troubles,
the only option left is for the citizens to depend on each other
for survival. Through sticking together, they have survived many
natural and man-made disasters for more than five thousand years.
In a civil society, people are expected to bear
the burden of the less fortunate by giving their time and money
to help others. In a traditional collectivistic society, self-sacrifice
goes much deeper than mere charity; it is a way of life to survive
in a harsh environment.
Self-sacrifice versus self-actualization
The spirit of self-sacrifice may sound jarring
and foolish in the Western culture which emphasizes personal success
and happiness. How can one attain self-actualization if one practices
self-sacrifice? Since each of us lives only once, how can we afford
to sacrifice our own dreams and aspirations for others?
Palmer has provided an insightful solution to this dilemma.
He argues that self-sacrifice is a form of self-enlargement, because
society and the individual are supplemental to each other. "Society
is nothing but the larger individual; so that he alone realizes
himself who enters most fully into social relations, making the
well-being of society his own."
Self-sacrifice is essential for self-actualization,
because we are all interconnected and interdependent. One's well
being is closely linked to the common good of the group one belongs.
The positive psychology of self-sacrifice teaches us that individual
well-being depends on co-creating a positive community through voluntary
Those who care only about their own interest
in fact cut themselves off from the tree and become isolated branches
without roots. Those obsessed with self-aggrandizement may actual
diminish themselves by fragmenting the community to which they belong.
The isolated self cannot find true fulfillment, because we are hard-wired
for community. What really matters is the conjunct, interrelated
self, which cannot be separated from family, friends, and society.
In short, the positive psychology of the self cannot be sustained
without a positive psychology of community.
The aim of self-sacrifice is not to negate ourselves
but to voluntarily suffer personal loss for the greater good. Palmer
has put it eloquently: "We must die to live. Our lower goods are
found incompatible with our higher. Pleasure, comfort, property,
friends, possibly life itself, have become hostile to our more inclusive
aims and must be cast aside. It is true that when the tragic antithesis
is presented and we can reach our higher goods only by loss of the
lower, hesitation is ruin."
Self-enlargement through self-sacrifice
Perhaps the noblest case of self-sacrifice involves
the complete giving of oneself without any consideration of personal
benefits. Paradoxically, "no self" or death to self actually results
in self-enlargement. This wisdom can be found in major spiritual
For example, right after his announcement to
his disciples about his forthcoming death, Jesus told them, "I tell
you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and
dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces
many seeds" (John 12:24). "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). Indeed, through dying
on the cross, Jesus has attracted millions of followers. He challenges
every Christian to follow his example of self-sacrifice. "Anyone
who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life
for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10: 38-39).
In this Christmas season, millions of people
around the globe are remembering the birth of Jesus Christ more
than 2000 years ago. No other person has impacted human history
more than Jesus. The power of Christianity flows directly from the
sacrificial love of Jesus and his followers.
Another instructive example is Gautama Siddhartha,
who later became the Buddha. Gautama renounced his secular life
as a royal prince in order to find the path to enlightenment. Buddhism
teaches that enlightenment necessarily involves willingly letting
go one’s delusion about the ego as a solid entity apart from other
beings, and abandoning one’s attachments to earthly possessions.
Practice of the true Dharma (Buddhist teaching) requires self-denial
and moral disciplines on a daily basis. Paradoxically, by giving
up everything to embark on the Buddhist path, one’s consciousness
is liberated and expanded to include everything. To attain the state
of “no self” actually leads to the experience of true inner peace
and harmony with the cosmos.
Are you tired of all the struggles, disappointments
and pains associated with self-seeking? Are you longing for meaning
and purpose? You may want to try self-sacrifice. When you identify
self-interest with the larger interest of a community or a higher
calling, self-sacrifice will not only lead to self-fulfillment but
also to the betterment of society.
Self-enlargement occurs only when self-actualization
is surrendered to self-sacrifice. Whoever gives up his life will
find it; whoever renounces worldly desires will find true riches.
We discover life through dying, joy through suffering, and fulfillment
through emptying ourselves. By opening our hearts and minds for
others, our own lives are enlarged and enriched. Such paradoxical
effects can be found experientially and experimentally, but we need
to at least entertain such a glorious possibility.