Have you ever had to kick a homeless person out of your house?
I was involved with a hitchhiker once. And I waited to break up with him and kick him out of my home until I absolutely had to. By that point it was the only possible thing to do. He was horribly abusive and (over a year later, it’s still so very hard to type these words) he raped me. Not long after kicking him out, I cut off all contact with him. I have no idea where he is or if he’s even alive. And even though it was the right thing to do, that decision still haunts me. Even though I know his behavior toward me isn’t my fault, I still blame myself for it. For letting him in, for caring about him, for giving him a place in my life. And I hate myself, yes, I hate myself, for not sacrificing myself for him.
I love my current partner. He’s never once hurt me, pushed any boundary I’ve set up, used me, or demanded that I center my entire life around catering to his every whim at a moments notice. He’s everything I’d ever hoped for and more. And I realized last night, love can require sacrifice, but if I’d sacrificed everything for the man who abused me, I would never be in a position to sacrifice anything for this man who really loves me.
I can’t be Jesus. I can’t crucify myself for everybody, and those who love me won’t ask me to crucify myself at all.
I was told all my life of course that I had to be just like Jesus. I had to sacrifice myself. I was an offering unto the Lord which actually meant an offering to the authority figures in my life and all those around me. I had to die, figuratively speaking, by laying down every part of my life for every person around me. From a very young age I prayed that I could fulfill the acronym “J-O-Y: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last.” “Selfishness” was second only to “pride” on my list of sins I was constantly guilty of (or constantly accused of being guilty of). I worked so hard to eradicate all selfishness that it’s been very difficult now, post-Christianity, to build up boundaries, to learn self-care, to recognize that I have needs and they are important too.
To sacrifice indiscriminately is absolutely foolish. A person who gives up every part of their life to help every single person has no focus and exhausts themselves for very little. They become vulnerable to predators and abusers who demand so much of oneself that there’s very little left to give to those whom one could actually help.
Kicking the hitchhiker out of my house haunts me with guilt but it also is a triumph. A triumph of saying no. Of learning that I cannot be expected to lay down my whole life for one person. For so long I wanted to climb up on a cross to perform a double atonement. I wanted to save a deeply damaged, hurt, hardened man from the pain in his life and the terrible, destructive defense mechanisms he used, and I wanted to save myself in his eyes, to be everything he wanted and needed, to make him happy in the hopes that somehow that would be what could save him. Anyone who understand abuse dynamics will know that feeling well. The day I realized that saving myself for myself was more important than hopes of being some kind of sacrifice to save him was one of the greatest and most painful turning points in my life.
I still want to give of myself. But what I’ve learned is that the idea of one noble sacrificial act that will change everything is just an easy mirage. And I’ve learned that the person who asks me to give absolutely everything to them isn’t worth any of it. Life is an ongoing interaction of giving and being given to, and taking care of myself as well as those around me. I can sacrifice time, energy, privilege, resources, but I will never again try to save someone else by allowing myself to be crucified on their abuse.
When I climbed down off that cross I finally could begin to understand that there’s no use in spending my whole life attempting to die. The work there is to do can only be done by the living.