I have a confession to make: I cry at the movies, and for me, what separates a tear-jerker from a forgettable film is the magnitude of the sacrifice made by the main character.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit Dear John was one such tear-jerker. John is a soldier on leave who meets a girl named Savannah. They fall in love, but John goes to war, and eventually, Savannah falls in love with someone else. John comes back to find out Savannah’s new husband has a terminal illness.
Instead of swooping in at a vulnerable moment or waiting it out until her husband falls apart, John keeps his distance and instead sells his father’s valuable coin collection to make an anonymous donation toward Savannah’s husband’s hospital bills. John sacrificed the life he could’ve had with the only woman he’s ever loved so she could have more time with the man who stole her away.
For thousands of years, philosophers have talked about how every human is one part of a whole like a finger is to a body. Deep down, we yearn not to be the whole itself but merely an important piece of a bigger puzzle. It’s in our nature to give up our obsession with the self, and putting another’s needs ahead of our own lets us do that.
Dear John is a cheeky example but think back to the best movies you’ve ever seen or books you’ve ever read–the ones that turned on the waterworks. I’ll bet there was sacrifice. The protagonist knows what they have to do will be painful, but they do it anyway because they believe in something bigger than their pain. The most beautiful stories require the most painful sacrifices.
Hawaii to Moscow
In June of 2013, former government contractor Edward Snowden gave up the life–a well-paying job, a loving partner, and a promising career–all to release a secret: the American government was spying on its people without their knowledge. He risked jail time (or worse if the government detained him covertly).
29-year-old Snowden had almost nothing to gain and everything to lose. He was making good money in a stable career with plenty of room for advancement. His superiors had identified him as someone on his way to the top. He was living in a bungalow with his girlfriend in freaking Hawaii where he could’ve raised a family and lived out his life in paradise. But he gave all that up for a life in hiding in Moscow. Whether or not you agree with what he did, it’s hard to deny the life of material ease he lost.
The thing is, Snowden was not alone in thinking it was crazy the government was covertly spying on its people. Many of his coworkers agreed, but instead of doing something about it, they shrugged it off with a defeated attitude of what can you do?
Why are some people willing to lay down their lives and risk jail time instead of resigning themselves to fate like everyone else? Why are some people willing to sacrifice so much with no guarantees?
They know not what they ask
One of the things that always confused me about Bible stories was how awful Jesus made it sound to follow him. Whenever someone would ask how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he would talk about how much suffering it requires, how much they would have to give up, and how painful it would be. It happens several times:
- A man tells Jesus he wants to follow him but needs to bury his dead father first. Jesus says if the man is to follow him, he needs to leave the dead to bury the dead. (Luke 9:60)
- A mother asks Jesus to set her two sons in a place of honor in Heaven. Jesus says they know not what they ask. To sit in a place of honor in Heaven is to drink his bitter cup of suffering. (Mathew 20:22)
- The rich young ruler asks him how to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus instructs him to sell all his possessions and give everything away to the poor. (Matthew 9:16)
- Jesus lectures a crowd about how he came not to bring peace but division–to split families apart–pitting son against father and daughter against mother. (Luke 12:50)
So Jesus is telling us to miss our father’s funeral, drink a bitter cup of suffering, give away all our things, and hate our parents? I’m no salesperson, but that does not sound like a great sales pitch for Christianity. I always thought it sounded like he was trying to dissuade people from following him.
I’ve realized perhaps it’s not that Jesus was trying to discourage people from following him. It’s that he knew the things they’d have to give up to follow him pale in comparison to the reward of following him. He wasn’t scared to tell people of the hardship they would endure because he knew of the beautiful life they would receive in return.
In the New Testament, before Jesus floats back up into heaven, he tells his disciples they will be sad when he leaves, but the pain will be temporary because the Holy Spirit is coming to dwell with them instead. Here, he draws a comparison to a mother going through terrible birthing pains which are quickly forgotten when she holds her newborn child in her arms.
Imagine your doctor saying you have two days to live, but all you have to do to be cured is take one pill. There’s just one catch: the pill has a reported side-effect of violent diarrhea. Uhhh who cares? I want to live. I’ll deal with it. Sure diarrhea sounds awful, but it won’t even phase you because the outcome is well worth the temporary suffering.
At times in my life, I’ve fallen into a defeatist attitude. When problems that seem too difficult or scary come up I tend to shrug my shoulders and say, what can you do? I used to hear stories like that of Nelson Mandela who served 27 years in prison for the cause he believed in and think, that’s inspiring, but I could never. That’s giving up too much security and comfort–the good life, you know?
Now I’m starting to see his sights were on something far bigger than comfort and ease. Mandela was living a better story than me because he could see the newborn and all I could see were the birthing pains.
So when I don’t understand why someone gives up what looks like a great life for what looks like a crappy one, I realize I might not be seeing the whole picture. I see the diarrhea, but they see the cure.
The Life He Gained
I learned about Snowden’s story while watching the movie, Snowden, based on his life. In the end, they showed a clip of the real-life Ed speaking. Many had asked how he could give up everything–his partner, his career, his cushy lifestyle in Hawaii. His response?
“When I left Hawaii, I lost everything. I had a stable life, stable love, family, future. And I lost that life… But I’ve gained a new one, and I’m incredibly fortunate. And I think the greatest freedom that I’ve gained is the fact that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.”
Though I, like the society I’ve grown up in, have learned to put comfort on a pedestal, it’s people like Snowden who remind me there are bigger rewards in life than the ones we can see with our eyes.
History belongs to those who refuse to resign themselves to what is and are willing to sacrifice their lives for what could be. Ease won’t be promised; comfort won’t be promised; recognition won’t be promised. I may be asking for a difficult, painful, unappreciated life, but a life of sacrifice may very well be the most beautiful story I could live.