man in black jacket and blue pants sitting on brown wooden seat

Toxic Sacrifice

It makes sense that, traditionally speaking, men raised in the United States build their life around sacrifice. It’s a deeply embedded part of our culture.

As a historically Christian-dominant nation, we are raised with a male-identified God who came to Earth in the form of a man who literally laid down his life not just for the good of his contemporaries but for the eternal benefit of all those who would believe in him forever and ever amen.

Talk about a tough act to follow.

Sacrifice has been traditionally engrained in our male culture. It’s what leads the chivalrous to open doors for women, to walk on the outside of the side walk for the sole benefit of taking the impact from a moving vehicle, to being the provider for not only their spouse but their 2.5 children — and let’s not forget the family dog.

Now, obviously, that has changed over the past quarter to half century. Men are no longer the soul earners in many families, and traditional chivalrous behavior is sometimes scorned by those it was designed to please. Whether that’s good or bad is a topic for another day. What matters now is that, yes, things are different today from how they were when I was growing up.

I was raised in an outwardly traditional family. Dad went to work everyday wearing a suit and a tie. Mom stayed home and raised the kids. Most kids I knew as a younger child were raised in a similar environment. Though I wasn’t raised overtly with religion, I had a general awareness of this sacrificial god-man who I owed allegiance to because he sacrificed his life for me on a cross so that I wouldn’t burn in an eternal hell.

Today, I see just how toxic sacrifice can be.

There are many, many qualifiers that come with this realization. The first is that sacrificing for the good of another is not a bad thing. The second is that it is in no way implying that I or men in general are the only ones who make deep, personal sacrifices for the good of their spouse or their family. Sacrifice, as I said, is a deeply embedded part of our culture, and not just for men. I recognize and appreciate the sacrifices both my parents made for me, that my wife makes for me and our children (and the dog).

That being said, my frame of reference for this view on toxic sacrifice is as a white male raised in the United States predominantly during the 1980s and 1990s who now is trying to navigate his way on a really challenging path in 2023. My observations are not necessarily just my own, as I’ve heard from other men similar things to what I’ve been feeling, but they are definitely my perspective and mine alone on how this culture of toxic sacrifice is playing out.

So what are some of these observations? Well, it has recently dawned on me that I do very, very little of the things I would actually want to do for myself if freed from the obligations to others. Again, this isn’t because anyone has asked me to make these sacrifices, conned me into making these sacrifices or that these sacrifices are a bad thing. In addition, this isn’t to suggest I am anywhere close to alone in making the level of sacrifices that I make for the good of the others in my life or that the others in my life don’t make great sacrifices of their own, some of them for me and me alone.

Qualifiers (hopefully) explained, what I’ve realized, as I said, is how much of my life really isn’t my own. Among the things that are part of my daily existence that wouldn’t necessarily be that way were my life more about just me are:

  • The state in which I live
  • The car I drive
  • The job(s) I have
  • The hobbies I am able to pursue
  • Where, how and on what I spend my money
  • The clothes I wear
  • The things I do with my free time
  • The priorities I have in home improvement/repair
  • The food I eat, when I eat it and the quantity I eat

You get the point, I assume. That point is this: Many important decisions that affect me in significant ways are being made without me anywhere close to the top of the list when it comes to wants, needs and desires.

The thing is, that’s totally OK. … Most of the time.

What leads to these things not being OK for many men is when that sacrifice isn’t recognized and appreciated in ways that reach his heart. I saw this in my father. He willingly, gratefully, lovingly sacrificed a great deal to provide for his family. When that was met by a wife who too frequently took it and him for granted, he’d get upset. This isn’t to suggest my mother owed him anything or needed to constantly remind him of how valued his efforts were.

But it did mean she could have laid off on the small, stupid stuff just a little bit more.

My mother is hardly the only or worst example of this, and I’m not saying this is gender-specific. I know a ton of men, even men in traditional marriages, who don’t have a clue exactly what their wives sacrifices by being stay-at-home moms. They don’t get how challenging it is to be a working mom. These men rarely show appreciation for their wives in the language that speaks most directly to their soul.

I’ve learned that my wife is very much an acts-of-service person who also loves the occasional note and bouquet of flowers as a “thanks for being freaking awesome.” She deserves these things, so I do them. I fail more often than I would like, but I am happy that I succeed more often than I used to. It’s incumbent upon anyone in any sort of meaningful relationship — be that husband/wife, parent/child or boss/employee — to find the most meaningful ways to show appreciation and then regularly, willingly, joyfully do them.

This might sound horribly antiquated, but here’s what I think the key is to turning toxic sacrifice into willing and amazing sacrifice: People who are worth sacrificing for.

I know I feel a helluva lot better about the sacrifices I’m making when I have a wife and children and a boss and coworkers and friends who see and appreciate the sacrifices I am making and who therefore show me the grace on things that might be at the periphery of my areas of interest. I know I’m much more willing to go that extra mile and do the extra thing when my soul is being nurtured and fed by those for whom I’m doing the extra thing for.

I need to be fed, too. Regularly. Lovingly. In the ways that reach my soul, which really aren’t all that hidden if you take the time to get to know me.

On the flip side, I know — right or wrong — I start feeling extremely taken-for-granted and unwilling to do jack shit for those who don’t appreciate what I’m bringing to the table for their primary benefit. Ever have a kid bitch at you for something petty they didn’t get when you’re busting your ass to provide all those amazing things they do have? I trust I’m not alone.

But here’s the key thing: Toxic sacrifice is no one else’s fault!

If I’m regularly giving too much of myself at the expense of my own wants and needs for those who don’t appreciate it or who can’t show that appreciation in a meaningful way, that’s not anyone else’s fault by own. And the course correction is obvious: Pull back on what I do for others and tend my own garden with a little more time and care.

Sometimes, the best way for someone to realize how much you do for them is to not do it for them for a while. I know that sounds petty and childish, but it’s not. It’s self-preservation.

The human condition is an interesting one. We seem to be hardwired to be in relationship with each other, yet blindingly soon after we get together in any sort of community, the nastier sides of us start to emerge. History and the police scanner show the results: fighting, divorce, assault, rape, murder, war and genocide. So why the biological imperative to live in community, outside the ancestral need for protection and species survival? I’m not quite sure.

What I am sure of, however, is that toxic sacrifice has its roots in our religious foundation, which molded what we now call the “traditional family.” There are many, many good things that came from that definition of how families should be. Toxic sacrifice isn’t one of them. Men, in particular, all too often give way too much of themselves for others at the expensive of their own happiness, peace and contentment. That’s no one’s fault but our own.

So it’s on us to fix it. It’s on us to set more realistic boundaries about what we’re willing to do for the good of others while protecting the time and energy we need to do the things for the good of ourselves. This in no way is a license to live a self-centered existence. The pendulum cannot swing all the way to the other extreme.

But for many men, it needs to fall somewhere much closer to the middle than where it is today.

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