Is what we call self-sacrifice always an act of love?
A few years after I met Rose (See The Dance of Self-Sacrifice Part 1), in the midst of a bad recession, my own mother got me a job where she worked in a geriatric home for women. There I met David, whose wife suffered from early-onset dementia. Like Rose and her family, I got to know him quite well during the quiet times on the ward. A vibrant, attractive man full of energy and zest for living, he had cared for his wife at home for thirteen years, until she got to the point of needing full-time monitoring. Forced to put her into residential care, he visited her every day. For a decade before she died, she barely knew who he was, yet he sat with her for hours every evening after work.
Why did he do it, day after day for almost 23 years, I asked him, expecting the usual ‘She’s the love of my life’ or ‘She’d do it for me’.
“It’s how I inhabit life,” he said. “I could be out flitting around and whatnot, but why? One thing’s as good as another if you’re in it all the way. It’s my meditation. It’s who I am.”
I’ve heard this described differently by spiritual teachers: living in the moment, accepting what is, transcendence. They never describe it as sacrifice, and neither did David. For him it was simply living. Or as Anthony de Mello would say, he was just doing his dance.
So is this the great act of love ascribed to people who put others first or is it a different kettle of fish altogether? Back to Rose and her granddaughter. They came from a big, originally Italian family and they were held together by the invisible, complex bonds of family. But I watched different groupings of them together. Because Rose wanted to please everyone, she sided with everyone. When child number 1 complained about child number 2, Rose agreed with them. Then the next day, she agreed with child number 2 against child number 1. The result, her children squabbled and fought and often didn’t speak to each other, each one believing Rose was on their side. It turned everything, from planning her funeral (which they did one Saturday) to deciding what to bring her to eat, into mini-warfare.
Her children loved each other passionately and they loved her, of that I had no doubt. And nobody could have accused this warm, generous, gentle woman of selfishness. She was generous to a fault – I often witnessed her giving money to her visitors and buying chocolates in the hospital shop for patients who didn’t have visitors. But the well of her self-sacrifice nourished a lot of unnecessary and unintended pain and conflict.
Society calls self-sacrifice love, but is it always love?