The Possibility of Self-Sacrifice


Oded Na’aman in Boston Review:

Normally, death is present in our lives as an ending-yet-to-arrive. For most of us, Simone Weil writes, “Death appears as a limit set in advance on the future.” We make plans, pursue goals, navigate relationships—all under the condition of death. We lead our lives under the condition of death; our actions are shaped by it as a surface is shaped by its boundaries.

However, as we approach this boundary, when our end is present, we are nothing but terror. All pursuits disintegrate, and our self-understanding collapses. At once we are expelled from the sphere of meaning. We are nothing more than this body. This body and its last breath. It is not simply that we cannot survive our own death; we cannot bear the sight of it. We do not want to die. Not now.

And yet the possibility of self-sacrifice suggests that this terror can be overcome, that death can be meaningful. One recent example is that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 and whose death put in motion the massive uprising known as the Arab Spring. But there are many less noted acts of self-sacrifice. In different places and moments in time, in different languages and cultures, soldiers, activists, lovers, friends, and parents exhibit a willingness to die that demands our attention.

Such acts, so difficult to comprehend, may seem at first sight unworthy of serious consideration. But rushing to this conclusion would be a mistake. It is not only that by dismissing acts of self-sacrifice as unintelligible we disavow a prevalent and influential human phenomenon. Understanding these acts may also shed light on the way we value things more generally. Indeed, we will see that even if most of us will never actually take such extreme measures, the possibility of self-sacrifice is part of living a meaningful life.

More here.