The Hidden Meaning of ‘Self-Gift’

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St. George self-gifting all up on the dragon.

In a recent homily, my priest said that the problem with marriages these days is the lack of self-gift. “Nobody knows how to say ‘No’ to self for the sake of the other,” he said. If only husbands and wives could live for one another, so many issues would be resolved.

The concept is familiar: If we want to make relationships work, we must deny our own needs and wants, and instead satisfy the needs and wants of the other. Love, it is said, is the gift of self, which means sacrifice, which these days means denying oneself for the good of others.

My priest gave the ultimate example: Christ died for the Church, and we are called to be Christ-like.

Although this is a familiar refrain, the thought struck me with remarkable force that day. Was my priest saying that we are to die for our spouses? Is that the only way we can be Christ-like in marriage? Granted, it would be quite romantic in a Romeo-and-Juliet kind of way, but it wouldn’t be very practical. If we all died for our spouses, there would be no spouses and therefore no Church to celebrate Christ’s salvation.

Of course he didn’t mean that we should actually die for our spouses, but perhaps be prepared to die. We should dedicate our lives to the other such that we ‘die to self’. To him, self-gift meant self-denial, or putting the other above ourselves.

But, even though it is much more practical, this understanding of self-gift is still lacking, and the objective onlooker is right to question it. Here’s why:

It prioritizes the base in us.

True, the idea of self-sacrifice implies giving up something that is pleasurable for the sake of someone else. But usually the benefit gained by the other is also pleasurable. The idea is that one will do something that makes things easier for one’s spouse, and that tends to amount to some form or another of making him or her feel good, relaxed, and content.

While there is nothing wrong with base physical satisfaction, it should not be the goal of marriage. There are other things that are more important than feeling good, relaxing, and being content. Sometimes these are what should be sacrificed in the interest of production, safety, and achievement.

It’s inefficient.

Self-sacrifice often entails doing favors for the other, helping with a task, and relieving him or her of a duty. But sometimes these things are just done more efficiently on one’s own time. It is one thing for a husband to offer to wash dishes after dinner, for instance, but to demand that he also cook the meal when his wife is much more capable at it is inefficient and wasteful. Different people excel at different things and so it makes sense that the husband and wife would divide the labor, specialize, and trade to be the most productive they can be. Sometimes that means not doing favors for each other; sometimes that means not sacrificing for each other.

It can be taken advantage of.

If one is intent on sacrificing one’s own wants and needs for the other, then one can be taken advantage of. He will sense he is not living up to his end of the bargain if he doesn’t see his spouse completely satisfied, even if his spouse consistently shifts the goalposts and always demands more. The result is an all-too-often case of someone being a door mat and never being able to escape a self-defeating situation.

We can use as an extreme example the demands of the collectivist governments for each citizen to do his part to help others. “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” It doesn’t take long for people to realize that these abilities and needs are flexible and can change on a whim. One lowers his abilities and raised his needs, and the one who loses is the earnest worker who wants nothing more than to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.

There is no limit to sacrifice.

If we are to truly sacrifice in the sense of denying the self, then we must do so at the risk of our own well-being and ultimately our own demise. The standard that is always referenced is that of Christ, who died for his bride.

But, as Romeo and Juliet will tell you, this isn’t a very fruitful arrangement. To quote the inimitable Patton, “No bastard ever won a war dying for his country. He won by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” It’s not perfectly connected, but you get the point.

Now, no one says that we should sacrifice to the extent of starvation or death, but they don’t say how far we must go. Lenten sacrifice is seemingly arbitrary, for instance, and serves as different sacrifice to different people. Without a reasonable limit, the standard can be set arbitrarily and so it is ultimately meaningless.

It is logically inconsistent.

More problematic is the fact that this standard of self-sacrifice is self-contradictory. The idea is that we can only truly love if we are giving to the other. But a gift has to be received. If one is in the process of receiving a gift, he cannot be giving it, and if he is not giving he cannot be sacrificing for the other.

Indeed, it could even be said that the receiver is being selfish in that he is focusing on his needs and wants over those of the other. And so, in order to sacrifice for the other, then, one prevents the other from sacrificing for him; if a husband fulfills his duties in the marriage, then, he necessarily prevents his wife from fulfilling her duties in the marriage, and vice versa.

It distracts from the true object of marriage.

Most importantly, this standard of self-sacrifice is self-defeating. Everyone knows that it is noble to sacrifice the self for the sake of others, and this is especially true for marriage. But, by focusing not at all on oneself and only on the other, means that one has forgotten that the other is also in a marriage and that there is a mutual goal to be achieved, the true goal of marriage, godliness.

The standard of self-gift necessarily puts the relationship in terms of the husband’s needs versus the wife’s needs, or the wife’s needs versus the husband’s needs, when ultimately it’s the husband-and-wife’s needs as a married couple that should be focused on. Only by viewing the union, not in terms of self and other, and rather in terms of one flesh and one mind can it be said that the husband and wife will see their true duties as a married couple. It is not a matter of denying the self in the interest of the other, but rather of expanding the conception of self to include oneself, one’s spouse, and one’s children.

The goal is not to serve the other but rather to serve God through the union—to do good, not just for the other, but for the family as a whole. In this light, it is clear that the problem is not really too little self-gift but rather a misunderstanding of what it is. So, what is it?

 

In se enim donum est.

Most see self-gift as a form of sacrifice, which is correct. The problem is that most people don’t know what sacrifice means.

To most, sacrifice means giving up what one wants for the benefit of others. We sacrifice our afternoon at the beach to help a friend move; we sacrifice that last piece of pie so that someone else can enjoy it. The assumption is that we only want what benefits ourselves and necessarily harms others—the self in this case is one’s base urges, one’s sinful self. In order to not be a jerk, we are obliged to deny that self and focus on others—saying ‘No’ to self for the sake of the others.

But is this the only kind of self there is? What of the unique creation from Genesis? What of the conscience-owning, free-will wielding child of God whom Jesus died for? What of the imago dei, the image of God? Giving up this self, even if it’s for the benefit of others, would be the worst thing we could do. That is because this self is the threshold to godliness, and, as such, it is an integral piece to do any good and to make any social construct good, especially marriage. To deny this self would be to deny goodness and any good relationships. A philosopher once said, “You need to have an ‘I’ before you can have an ‘I love you’ ”.

To create the best relationship, we need not diminish the individuals that make it up but rather understand them, bolster them, and give them and arena in which to thrive. Any relationship that prevents this is bound to fail.

Consider sacrifice. The word comes from the Latin ‘sacrum’ and ‘facere’—’sacrifice’ means ‘to make sacred’. And so, if self-gift is a kind of sacrifice,  it doesn’t mean denying oneself or giving up what one desires; it means emphasizing and lifting up oneself toward God. You don’t sacrifice yourself by diminishing who you are and what you do; on the contrary, you sacrifice yourself by lifting yourself up toward God.

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It is easy to think as my priest did that self-gift means self-denial. We think it is noble and just to forget ourselves for the sake of others. Recall the sit-com current which had a manly husband say, “My wife wanted to get kittens, but I’m the man of the house, so we got kittens.” The thought is that it is the duty of the man to forego his wants and needs to satisfy his wife.

And yet, if it forces the man to be less of who he is, then it is possible that the compromise actually compromises the union. We would do well to remember, as relationship guru Mandy Hale puts it, “True love makes you more of who you are, not less.” Marriage should mean emphasizing husband and wife, not denying one for the sake of the other. Self-gift is self-expression, not self-denial.

Only by viewing self-gift in this way can we see what St. Francis meant when he said “It is in giving that we receive.” When self-gift is self-denial, then we lose ourselves and cannot receive at all. When self-gift is self-expression, on the other hand, we fulfill who we are as a person, and there is nothing more rewarding than that.

And, finally, we are asked, what of Christ? Didn’t he die for his bride? Isn’t that the ultimate form of self-gift? Indeed he did, and indeed it was. But, in his gift of self, he did not lessen who he was; he fulfilled who he was as a person. His self-gift wasn’t a denial of himself, but rather the ultimate expression of himself. And so we are called to do the same.