The Incredible Effects of Sacrifice

November 30, 2023
Reading time: 4 minutes
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Here in New York City, the American Museum of Nature and Science recently featured an exhibit called “Extinct and Endangered.” In it, 40 photographs Levon Biss took feature rare insects in ultra-high resolution displayed against a matte black background. The space behind each photo (the dark background and ample wall space in the halls) emphasizes details such as the graceful scallop of a butterfly’s wings, the tiny hairs on a hornet’s abdomen, or the metallic shimmer of a beetle’s shell. That’s because in this exhibit, as in life, clearing away the background noise amplifies the essentials.

Cartoonist Scott McCloud has created an entire model showcasing this philosophy. For him, “amplification through simplification” means stripping down an image to its essentials to amplify its meaning. Many Zen practices follow this thinking, too–among them the traditional Ikebana, which is the Japanese art of flower arranging. In Ikebana, even a single leafless branch is of great artistic value and worthy of focus. Rather than filling a vase with blooms, this tradition emphasizes structure and beauty through minimalism.

So, how can we benefit from the idea of amplification through simplification in our own lives?

From a kabbalistic perspective, too much clutter–physical and mental—is a form of chaos. In his book Taming Chaos, Rav Berg noted how chaos can trip us up by blocking the Light of the Creator and keeping us from seeing our lives clearly. He wrote, “We have been programmed to believe that our affairs are too complex to be resolved with easy, simple solutions; we are predisposed not to believe in simplicity. Let that doubt be banished now.”

All of us can agree that we are living in a time of great chaos. The “noise” of modern life is exceptionally loud at this time, perhaps more so than at any other time in history, thanks to social media and a 24-hour news cycle. Yes, it is important to stay informed and to pay attention to the world around us, but only to a point. We absolutely have to quiet the noise in order to see how best to serve because with so much to focus on at any given time, we miss out on the clarity of our own inner voice. By simplifying, we clarify.

This idea of simplification and clarification was made new to me recently as I was listening to an interview with Malcolm Gladwell on Dan Harris’ The 10% Happier Podcast. The episode wasn’t about simplifying our lives or clutter but about kindness and real sacrifice. He spoke about both, but it was this study he shared that touched me profoundly: the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and it was exactly as it sounds. During and following WWII, so many people throughout the war-torn regions were suffering from starvation, and doctors were concerned about how to help bring these people back to health post-war. They had no idea how to properly rehabilitate someone after extreme malnutrition.

Enter a group of deeply religious men who declined to go to war based on their faith. They were so against violence but found a way to be of service by electing to take part in this study. They all agreed to be starved over a period of months and then rehabilitated so their bodies could be studied and medical researchers could learn how to save the lives of thousands of starving people. Their bodies, as well as their psychological health, underwent incredible duress. While the study itself was overwhelmingly successful, these men struggled with physical and emotional symptoms for the rest of their lives. They suffered tremendously—from things such as insomnia, digestive issues, bone issues, depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal thoughts—and upon release from the study, had to be assisted by the University in finding work because not only were they too weak to do any kind of physical labor, their ambition and desire to go on were close to nonexistent.

Sixty years after the experiment, 18 of the original 40 were still alive and agreed to be interviewed. They spoke at length about their experiences, and so many of their memories were still very vivid. Each shared their own individual struggles during and following the experiment and recalled things like a wild obsession with food that consumed their lives. They detailed physical effects like anemia, edema, protruding bones, and skin issues, and they remembered walking alongside their assigned buddy each day (a buddy system was implemented to help them keep from breaking the diet anytime they left the university campus).

A study like this could never be conducted today—it breaks too many ethical guidelines now in place.

And who would agree to this level of sacrifice? Just like Gladwell ponders in the episode, I also wondered: when did we become so uncomfortable with sacrifice?

You may wonder what this has to do with simplifying, and the answer can be found within that group of 40 men. Their faith made it impossible to join the war effort as soldiers, but they wanted to contribute, and the study gave them a way to be of service without violating their beliefs. Despite their enormous agony and hardship, each one of the men was proud of their contribution. In fact, they expressed that their moral horizons had been so expanded as a result that they wholeheartedly consider it one of the greatest experiences of their lives.

They all said they would do it over again without hesitation.

When we remove the noise, the answers are clear. Vast populations of people were in dire need, and these men wanted to be a part of fulfilling those needs. Simple.

The word sacrifice may bring up a slew of derogatory associations. Still, it’s defined as “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.” We are not meant to sacrifice greatly every day, especially at such great cost to our well-being, but this notion of giving up something we value for the greater good is the root of generosity and kindness. Small acts of sacrifice for the sake of kindness can have just as significant an impact, and we are all capable of it.

Where is the background noise in your life?
Where does the chaos need to be tamed?
How can the clutter be decluttered?

The answer might be found in your next act of pure kindness. When you look for ways to be of service, you’ll find everything becomes simpler.


Comments

  1. Jonathan Daniel : December 7, 2023 at 1:25 am

    Thank you, we need to share this to the world! Light!

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