We hear that word a great deal, and it always seems so dramatic.
But what if we take it back in time? A sacrifice was something offered to the gods, surely, but it was a little subtler than that. In order to sacrifice you had to have more than enough; if you sacrificed a lamb it was because you could afford to spare one. So you offered it, in the hope that more good things would come your way and the deity would smile on you.
It wasn’t like a lottery ticket, where a small outlay promised a huge return. That’s simply a gamble.
A sacrifice is persuasive because one is in fact saying something like this: I work hard, I have spare wealth. I will now donate some of it because I know that I am going to continue to work hard -- and I can keep donating if I get your blessings.
And so it looks like a pledge to the gods, or even a bribe -- but behind it lies a promise to oneself, to keep on trying.
The Egyptians knew about time. Those huge pyramids and buried tombs. They knew that nothing much lasted, and the best anyone could do was to make it big, extensive and preferably of stone. They knew that in a couple of decades most of what we are will be dust, much of who we were will be forgotten. A pyramid is simultaneously a mark of personal triumph - “I built this!” - and a mark of human insignificance.
These are the two poles of what it means to be human.
Memory is a slippery thing. We forget things, we mis-remember things, we re-create what we think happened and then we’re astonished when someone gives us an alternate version. We forget our keys and our friends’ birthdays. And yet we remember some things with great accuracy - we recall important things in splendid detail; we remember how to ride a bike, ice-skate or serve an ace even though we haven’t done it for years.
And then, in the middle of the night, we recall all kinds of things that make us angry, upset or embarrassed. And it’s hard to turn those memories off. Actually, it’s almost impossible.
If you ever think you’re in charge of your mind, just think about memory. There it is, unruly, unreliable, vital. And then it threatens to fade out as we get older. Having this awareness lets us know something important, and it’s this: we are more than it.
Zoe (5) likes to have stories read to her. The other day she chose a picture book given to her by a family friend – a story of cute cuddly animals – and brought it to me. The only problem was that it was in Spanish. I don’t read Spanish. Zoe doesn’t read at all, yet. But she very much wanted me to read this story.
And so, there I was, the supposedly capable adult who couldn’t read the story. We were at the same level exactly.
So we did the only thing we could. We worked together, and made up a story using the pictures, wondering what the animals were saying and what their feelings were.
It was the best story I’ve helped to create in a long time.
Sometimes, when I go to collect Ellie (3 and ¾) so we can meet her sister from Kindergarten, I am a little late. On such occasions Ellie moves slowly, claims she can’t do up her shoes, and wants to talk about everything. I have to chivvy her along.
What I realized, though, is that Ellie is not being deliberately obstructive; it’s that she doesn’t quite get the idea of ‘hurry up’. I have to remember that she’s in the moment. And when she’s in the moment, right now, spending time with her Grampy is what she wants. She wants me to do up her shoes because she likes being with me, likes ordering me about a little, and that’s what matters to her. She likes the closeness of me zipping her into her coat, even though she can do it herself. To tell her to hurry up is to break this spell of our time together. Getting her into her hat and coat is as good as when we’re playing with her toys, as she sees it. We’re together. We’re sharing a moment. She’s telling me about things.
When I realized that I made a vow: always arrive early, and enjoy the process.
Me: OK Universe. I'm ready. You can use me however you see best.
Universe: Thanks. Now, what are you going to do?
Me: I don't know. Isn't that up to you? You're supposed to tell me, right?
Universe: Umm. It doesn't quite work that way.
Me: It doesn't? So what do I do?
Universe: You have to choose, based on your best insights, and then listen, to see if you chose the best way.
Me: But I want you to TELL me. I want YOU to do that.
Universe: I've been making suggestions to you for years.
Me: Really? What did you say?
Universe: I asked you to Listen. You have to listen to your life. Then you have to act. Then I can help.
Me: But I want you to decide for me! I want guaranteed success!
Universe: That's not exactly how Free Will works....
Years ago, when I had a cat; I simply loved that cat and it loved me.
What I noticed, though, is that this sweet-tempered creature liked to hunt and kill things, was merciless, and would torture them before death. She was still lovely, and she was all about herself. If she'd had the vote she'd have voted fascist.
What this told me was that you can have fascists in your family, you can love them and they can love you, but you don't want them in your law courts or police, and you don't want them running the house.
Or the Senate.
In our fast-paced world we don't do much of that. We read, skim, get the gist, and move on.
And that's why I've been re-reading some of the books I've enjoyed, many of them 'classics' that for most people get read once, in school, and then are cast aside with relief.
Re-reading can deepen our understanding of a book, and enhance our sense of what it has to say at the deepest levels. We don't always get that at the first reading.
Think of it this way: some people go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower. Good. They've seen it. And it gets crossed off the bucket list. Others go to Paris and see that famous tower over a period of time. In rain, in fog, at night, it has many different aspects and moods. It's a different experience each time, a wonder if we allow it to be.
Last night the moon was full. In my life I've seen the moon hundreds of times. Yet each time it fills me with awe and joy. Each time the experience is deeper.
That's one thing I won't ever cross off any bucket list.
Knowledge goes in cycles.
Something is invented and soon everyone knows what it is. Then it goes out of fashion and we all seem to forget how it works. Then it becomes junk.
A decade or two later someone re-discovers it. Painfully a group of enthusiasts re-learn the 'lost' knowledge, marveling at what they find. Then it (whatever the object is) becomes 'historic' and valuable and the knowledge of it becomes 'lore', highly prized.
We do the same with people. We finally realize how much the grandparents or great grandparents had to share only after they're dead.
A while ago I was asked to help with the biography of a man who had served in the Royal Air Force during World War Two. For some reason we needed the serial number of the Spitfire he’d been flying when he was shot down and injured.
So I fired up all the usual search engines and looked through the official lists.
What I learned was sobering.
It turned out that more than 20,000 Spitfires were made during the war, but the overwhelming cause of their destruction was accidents – not combat. Bear in mind that there were dozens of types of aircraft in service and this becomes very worrying.
The next thing that emerged was that there was no accurate record of the destruction of his aircraft. Can you imagine losing a high speed, expensive, fighter plane and pilot, today, and there being no record of it? Well, it seems that this was pretty common at the time.
The words ‘unsung hero’ come to mind, except there were thousand just like him.
Let us be grateful for the sacrifice of men like this. And let us never forget how ghastly and expensive war is -- in every sense.
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