The Gift

Sacrifice, given willingly and with love, makes us human.

Gift Box illustration by Bao Luu

Night. That late, inky, endless night all parents know intimately. Perched on a squeaking rocking chair, a parent nuzzles an infant—an impossibly small, powerful being. Teaching a baby to rest. Rocking, squeaking, tired beyond repair.

The parent’s own lack of sleep makes it harder for brain cells to talk to one another, harder to process memories, and harder to do daily tasks, studies show. This is some of what parents give up and this is what parents give. It is what is required for life to flourish.

Sacrifice is the human condition.

For children to learn language, develop loving relationships, to do what scientists and others call “flourish,” they need these sacrifices from caregivers. Repeated, loving interactions lay down the fundamental pathways the human brain needs to grow and give in return.

According to a 2016 paper in the London Journal of Primary Care, children without these connections are more likely to have depression and anxiety, as well as struggle with learning and memory. But, write authors Robert Winston and Rebecca Chicot, the opposite is also true. Baby mice raised with a parent that provides better care return that kind love to the next generation—with long-term effects that can been seen in chemical changes in both mouse and human brains. Biologically speaking, we need each other. And humans have been caring for each other, giving up for each other, for a very long time.

In Vietnam, archeologists discovered Stone Age remains of a man who died in his 20s from a rare condition that would have made it impossible for him to clean or feed himself. Someone in that hard, scary version of the world, at the very beginning of human settlement, did not cast the man out but moved his body frequently for a decade to prevent him from getting pressure sores. About 45,000 years ago, in modern-day Iraq, recently discovered remains showed how someone cared for a man in his 40s who was partially blind and deaf, was missing part of his arm, and limped badly. From the Alps to Brazil, the ancient bodies of children with severe disease have been found well cared for and buried with honor. The very ground beneath our feet brims with evidence of human sacrifice—and not the kind you think.

The traces of sacrifice can be found in nearly all human endeavor—love, music, sports, or fighting a pandemic. Nearly every tradition calls for it: Buddhists practice self-discipline and stillness, Christians give alms in an act of charity, Orthodox Jews forgo use of tools and electricity on the Sabbath, Muslims fast for a month of reflection and community prayer during Ramadan, and the list goes on.

WARPED BY POWER

Still, when called to perform a sacrifice many find themselves stalling—irritated by the ask, tired and wishing for sleep. It has become a demand, rather than a gift, says Santa Clara University theology lecturer Eugene Schlesinger, the author of Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism.

“Sacrifice has fallen into disfavor because it has come to be seen as violence and oppression,” he says. “There are some sacrifices that are demanded by the powerful from the less powerful.”

Those demands transformed sacrifice into burden—medieval pannage, paying feudal lords to graze on common land, being forced to wait for equality, or requirements one do something contrary to their nature are examples. Those who sacrifice are victims, not willing givers.

“Insofar that sacrifice is something that is taken or demanded, we the victims of sacrifices are rendered passive,” Schlesinger says.

The 15th century origin of the English word “victim” comes from the Latin word victima for an animal killed in religious sacrifice. “If we think of ourselves as sacrifice, or victims, instead of thinking of ourselves as sacrificers, or givers, it is a perversion of the term.”

In the Christian, Catholic tradition, everything comes down to sacrifice, Schlesinger says. “All we have and all we are is from a gift from a Creator and it is given freely. And the proper response to a gift is a gift”—our own sacrifices for each other given out of love and joy.

Thus sacrifice is not a demand, it does not a victim make. Sacrifice done truly, as a gift, should be a liberation, an empowerment and, Schlesinger says, it is something humans are called to do. “A gift is not diminishment. I am not less because I give you something,” he says. “We live in so far as we give and give ourselves freely.”

In the most literal sense, sacrifice as a gift can lead one’s thoughts to presents tied up with ribbon.

A gift enriching only the giver—those offered without sacrifice—is easily spotted. As in an episode of The Simpsons, when Marge Simpson narrows her eyes at her husband, Homer, who has presented her with a bowling ball for her birthday. Marge does not bowl; Homer does. It’s his name engraved on the ball.

Sacrifice as a gift, rather, should convey a person’s biography, be something they’ve strived to create. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the essay Gifts: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd his lamb; the farmer, corn…”

LOSS AND LOVE

Dance and choreography student Caroline Eby ’20 gave up the biggest performance of her life so far. In return for that sacrifice, she was able to care for those she loves.

The culmination of four years of her work was effectively canceled this March when Santa Clara County health officials ordered people to stay home in hopes of stemming the spread of a new coronavirus. Eby’s senior dance recital vanished with the order. It was a performance she had choreographed by herself, for which she auditioned and hired dancers, and rehearsed daily in sessions that often stretched on for hours. She’d been searching for the right music since her first year on campus.

The losses wrought by the coronavirus pandemic were slow and then all at once for many in the Class of 2020. “The first thing we lost was our rehearsal time” as students limited their time on campus, Eby says. “We were able to continue for a week or two weeks, with some dancers on campus and half on Zoom. But that organic dance community was the first thing to go.”

And then spring quarter was moved entirely online and, like many students, Eby says she was “hit with a lot of grief.”

Eby, who is from the East Coast, decided to reclaim a portion of her life from the pandemic by quarantining in the Bay Area with her best friends for the quarter.

Sacrifice is not a demand, it does not a victim make. Sacrifice done truly, as a gift, should be a liberation, an empowerment and… it is something humans are called to do.

She did it also to be close to her grandparents, who live near to campus. Because their ages put them at heightened risk of the virus, they stayed at home as much as possible. Every Monday Eby would go to the grocery store, then drive the purchases to Saratoga, where she would deliver food and visit from a 6-foot distance.

Though she grieved for missing out on the typical senior year, and a dance recital that will likely never be performed in-person, Eby was finding a renewed sense of responsibility and relationship with her grandparents. And, through reflection, Eby says she found she grew and learned more than she imagined from disappointment.

“The creative processes was a wild and crazy ride,” she says. She put together her director’s notes for the recital and pieced together videos from rehearsals and from dancers of what would have been. “I am staying home now for community and wearing a mask because it is my responsibility to keep my community safe.”

A GLORY GREATER THAN I

Pandemic Poem
A poem credited to Chelsea Diane was written out by hand and posted on a closed shop door at the beginning of the pandemic. /Photo via Imagur.

Around the time that students began distance learning, a poem went viral on social media. It summed up sacrifice as it appeared at a time when people could not be together.

“And then the whole world
Walked inside and shut
Their doors and said,
We will stop it all.
Everything

To protect our weaker ones,
Our sicker ones, our older ones.
And nothing, NOTHING in
The entire history of humankind ever
Felt more like
Love
Than this.”

Getting through a pandemic takes this kind of sacrifice. In that way, it is good that we are practiced at giving—from how families behave to how we play together.

“We talk about doing what’s best for the team often. It is like ‘we’ over ‘me’—that concept,” says SCU softball coach Gina Carbonatto. As softball became a major college sport in the ’90s and early aughts, it was known as a low-scoring game. “The value of one run is extremely valuable, like the value of one life,” Carbonatto says.

To get those runs, softball called for players to forgo their own glory and bunt, or hit the ball in such a way that it’s difficult to field. These hits mean the bunter will probably be tagged out but it allows another to advance a base or two closer to scoring.

The sacrifice bunt is less used now, as the game has become higher-scoring through the introduction of new bats and other changes. “We do not practice it as much,” Carbonatto says. “We don’t need it as much. But when we do need it, we need it to show up.”

Humans don’t just practice sacrifice with sports. It is also the heart of what is required to make the original joyful noise—singing together. Scot Hanna-Weir, assistant professor and director of SCU choral activities, says, “The instrument is all of these people together.” No one singer can make a chord of three notes or a harmony. To make profound moments of music, singers need to make room for one another’s voices.

“I think that is what we all miss. That sense we get together. What is better than standing together, taking a deep breath, and singing?”

“When you hear that stunning moment where the music comes alive and you get to hear what the composer intended, when you are in the music, that comes because the singers understand the music,” Hanna-Weir says. And not just the rhythm or the notes but the meaning. “The singers who really excel know that even though my note is really cool, I need to make space for another part that is important and I’ll get my moment in a minute. You want to be in those moments and make space for other people. It’s like making space in a conversation or a room or any social environment.”

Singers usually learn how to give what the choir needs, how to fill space or drop back, by performing as a group, together in person. But the pandemic made that impossible.

Still, Weir says, during quarantine, students have been willing to perform online through wonky tech, with audio that sometimes sounds like it’s underwater, all because “they want to sing together so badly.”

“I think that is what we all miss. That sense we get together,” he says. “What is better than standing together, taking a deep breath, and singing?”

It’ll do for now, until we can make joyful noise together, as a team, again. Because from a parent in a dark room coaxing an infant to sleep—the very thing of the future— to a student giving up years of work to act as a lifeline for her grandparents to all of us closing our doors and going out less for the health and wellbeing of our communities, there is much to give. And there is much to love. Because sacrifice is what humans do.

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