I grew up in a Hispanic culture, where giving too much was more than a norm, it was an expectation. Especially if you were female.
In comparison to my friends, I got off light. My mother was pretty independent. And by the time I was old enough to mimic her behaviors, she was divorced and my brothers young adults. It was the 80s, so mom went in search of her freedom.
She took very good care of me, even while working full time and having fun with friends. Things got a little more complicated when she started to date the man that would become her second husband.
He was older, and shall we say, a bit old-fashioned. He expected my mother to jump at the chance to stop working and going out with friends in order to spend more time with him. And at first, she complied… a little. She never stopped working, but she did slow down. Friends became a little more scarce when he was around. It was a sacrifice she was willing to make for the nourishment she received with the man she loved.
Remember that I said he was old-fashioned? Hispanic, male, economically comfortable. At some point, mom’s willing sacrifices were not enough for him. He wanted her to stop going to lunches with male friends, come home early, and you can just imagine where the story goes from there.
In the end, my mother woke up one morning and realized her sacrifice was becoming unbalanced—she was giving too much of herself.
Why is this such a familiar tale?
I didn’t really grow up in a religious household. I went to a Catholic school for a number of years, but not enough to say that it colored our lives. On the contrary, mother had studied most major religions and practiced metaphysics for many years.
My grandmother, her mother, had been one of those women that sacrificed her life for her husband. She left her home country and child behind to follow where my grandfather told her to go. But rather than making that sacrifice freely, she did it out of cultural pressure. Personally, I wouldn’t call that a sacrifice; I see that as just giving up or giving in.
Contrary to popular self-help books and religious icons, true sacrifice is not the same as “giving too much.” And it is definitely nothing like the “give until it hurts” mentality popularized by some.
A sacrifice is a mutually-beneficial relationship dressed as a commensalism.
Let’s talk about relationships
I’ve spent many hours studying ecosystems. In part, I think I love them so much because they help me understand relationships. Give and receive, action and pause, primary and support…
Ecosystems are built on relationships. Lots and lots of relationships.
When you think about human relationships, everyone will tell you that there has to be an even exchange, right? Healthy relationships require both parties to give and take in equal values. But is that really true?
It’s not in nature.
In nature, you have different types of relationships:
- Mutualism, where both organisms benefit from one another. I am sure you can think of many examples, such as the mycelium network carrying off excess nutrients trees want to pass on other other trees at a distance and keep a little for themselves as a fee.
- Amensalism, where one is harmed and the other is not affected. For instance a pine tree growing near grass. The needles fall, and their acid kills the grass. For the pine, it doesn’t matter if there is grass or not, but to the grass the pine is deadly.
- Parasitism, where one benefits and the other is harmed. Did you know that Mistletoe attaches to a tree or shrub to extract water and nutrients, eventually killing the host?
- Commensalism, where one organism benefits while the other is unaffected. Think of a beautiful orchid perched on a tree limb. The orchid uses the tree as a base, but the tree gets no value or harm.
Now that you know what a commensalism is, let’s go back to the concept of sacrifice.
Reflections on Giving Too Much
Modern society has twisted the concept of sacrifice into a negative. “Sacrifice a lamb to the slaughter”; sacrificing yourself for others. You’d think that we still do ritual, blood sacrifices from the way we talk about it.
But from a Kabbalistic point of view, when you sacrifice yourself from a place of unconditional love, not only will you not be harmed, you receive in unexpected ways. In the moment, you receive the flood of gratitude and love. And karmically, you reap the benefits of freeing yourself from expectations so that good things can freely come your way.
How about some examples to make it easier to understand?
The easiest is parenting. Think about the many activities, hobbies, experiences parents consciously give up while they raise a child. From a biological perspective, they get nothing in return. But just one look into the eyes of a smiling child and you know that you wouldn’t have it any other way.
How about a little harder? Your friend has fallen on hard times, so you start to cook them dinners every night so they can get a certification they desperately need to be able to move up into a more secure job. Since making dinner for two every night instead of one won’t break your bank and you were cooking already, there is no physical harm or benefit to you. But the moment they get that promotion, your heart grows a little bigger. That is mutually beneficial if you ask me.
Unconditional Relationship Dynamics
On the Tree of Life (remember the image I asked you to look at during my previous essay?), sacrifice sits right in the center, in the sephirah of Tipheret. Sacrifice is actually a synonym for Beauty, if you can believe it. Sound incredible, but when you think about it, it makes sense.
In order to perform a real sacrifice—that kind like the ones I listed above—you need to feel Unconditional Love. And immersed in that flow of love, everything is beautiful.
In that moment, you made a conscious choice not because you were scared someone would punish you (Geburah) or you would be a bad person if you didn’t (Chesed), you made it because in your heart you felt it aligned with your True Nature.
Can you feel the nourishment in that?
A sacrifice in balance doesn’t deplete… it fills. It fills you with hope, awe, wonder, and ultimately Love. And it is that love that heals all.
Years ago, when I first started living in community, there was a four year old living with us. One day, he walked into the dining room to get something. Spontaneously, I looked at him and said to myself, “No matter if he never realizes I am here, I love this boy and will do what I can to help him.”
While I lived in that nucleo home, I was a very active part of his life. I sacrificed much of my precious time to help him and his mother with anything I could. Once we both moved, I saw less and less of him. Yet whenever he participates in an event or sells something for school, I am there with support. When I see him walking around, sometimes he stops to talk. Most of the time, he is busy with his friends. But even just seeing him is enough to trigger that serotonin effect that makes me tingle with love and puts a smile on my face.
Don’t Confuse a Conscious Sacrifice with Giving Too Much
When Tipheret is out of balance, like an ecosystem that has experienced trauma, the natural tendency is to hold on and control what’s around to restore balance.
This is when you start to do things because you “need to” or “have to”. Which Kabbalistically speaking, means you are no longer in Tipheret. (You have moved into Chesed or Geburah, but we will go into that at a later date.)
Sacrificing yourself in these circumstances usually comes from a place of fear—fear of losing, fear of not being seen, fear of not being right, etc. So you go from “unconditional love” to “giving too much” for all the wrong reasons.
This can reasonably go on for a short time. Parasitic relationships in nature work to keep the ecosystem in balance. But if it goes on too long, something that started beautiful usually ends in a mess of limiting beliefs and negative patterns.
Besides, control never gets you anywhere. It sets up expectations no one can live up to, not even yourself.
Working with the energy of Tipheret, you learn to listen and trust your True Nature in order to create relationships based on what each party really needs, not on what the media tells you to do. And regardless of whether you create commensalisms or amensalisms or even at times parasitisms, they will all be experienced as a mutualism, because you will be nourished from the inside out.
Z’ev Ben Shimon Halevi, one of the great teachers of Kabbalah, reminds us that “[Tipheret] is the place where the unforgettable moments of a lifetime are perceived.”
So let’s remove the labels and emotions that are holding you back from using your full potential for fear of being too much, and step into the Beauty of the Unconditional Love of Tipheret.
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