Seventh grade was a formative time in my development. In addition to the fact that my mother used to make me drink hot prune juice as a regular part of my breakfast, it seemed that every morning her favorite radio station, WGY, played Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”
Is that all there is? Is that all there is, my friend? If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing.
It was a hell of a way to start the day. I gave up the prune juice at the earliest opportunity. It was harder to shake the sense that life always left one, well, wanting.
Life left you wanting and then you were suddenly old and infirm. That was what I feared. So back then all my choices had to made wisely. But all my choices made me fearful first: what am I going to lose by choosing this?
Then I—very smartly—grew up. Because sometimes when what we choose results in loss, there can also be unforeseen gain. Maybe in compassion. Or maturity. Or non-attachment. But loss is not always the pure giving-up that I thought it once was.
So "sacrifice’"is the wrong word. Its connotations are unremittingly negative. No matter how cheerfully the word is said, if somebody tells you they are sacrificing something for you, they want you to feel you owe them something. ‘Sacrifice’ isn’t the word I want. Neither is "self-denial."
Of course, it’s easier to nail Jell-O to the wall than it is to talk about these states of the soul.
It’s hard to talk about loss or sacrifice without bringing in the concept of doing without. But there’s no use making a career out of playing the martyr in our lives unless that’s the kind of psychological quirk that really flicks our switch. (‘How many mothers does it takes to change a lightbulb?’ ‘Oh, that’s okay, dear, I’ll just sit in the dark.’)
Besides, loss isn’t usually only about loss. Sacrifice isn’t usually only about giving up. Sometimes loss brings with it a sort of spiritual largesse.
My first glimpse of this came just before the birth of my second child. I was keeping an anxious vigil in the hospital, trying to stave off the beginning of a labor that had started 11 weeks too soon. I had no way to keep this child in my body where she belonged; even as I gave her life, her life was beyond my control.
Throughout that time I read the T.S. Eliot poem, “Marina” over and over again.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.
I began to see gain in resignation, hope in surrender, life passed on, not snuffed out, in aging and dying. I guess I glimpsed what can only be called a moment—a hair’s breath of a moment—of fear-free peace.
It’s always been significant to me that that moment came in the midst of the possibility of such staggering loss; not only did I have no idea what kind of life my daughter would face, I had no idea what kind of problems her pre-maturity would create for her. With all my being, I wanted to wave a magic wand and make everything be okay. But all that was beyond me.
I hope I never associate decisions I have made with “sacrifice.” I don’t want to burden those I love with the idea that because of them I am somehow less than myself.
Love can’t make us be less of who we are.
Instead, in resigning a grasping clutch on life for life beyond what can be held, for words as yet unspoken, for breath as yet unbreathed, I suspect that we become more and more of who we are.
But words don’t supplant the experience unless, in poetry, they can point to it. Sometimes I see my daughter’s face and it reminds me of how I first came to intuit what it means to resign one’s life.
How much freedom comes with such resignation, and how much richness.
It might be not only all there is, but the best of what is. And more than enough.