Compromises. You make them all the time – humble little decisions to acquiesce that keep the wheels of life oiled and generous.
You may make a simple compromise over where to go for a meal, or what kind of car you buy or who gets to do the dishes. You may argue a compromise with yourself, but more often than not it involves a certain amount of “haggle” with another person.
I like to think of it as sitting on a see-saw, and you’re just taking it in turns to go up and down. It’s probably more fun being up than down, but you can’t have one without the other. (And it’s no fun sitting on a see-saw all by yourself, is it?)
Whenever you choose to compromise, you generally make a choice to give something up in order to get something of consolation back – usually something you perceive to be roughly of equal value. You’re happy to take the highs with the lows because you know that the ride will probably even out in the end.
But at what point does a compromise become a sacrifice?
If a “compromise” is an evenly matched ride on a see-saw between two people of roughly equal weight, then a “sacrifice” is more like a game of tug o’ war, where one side is doing all the pulling, and the other side – you – gets dragged across the floor, through the mud, over the line with nothing to show for it but rope burn and a face full of dirt.
Whether you get up, spit out the mud and walk away red-handed but joyful depends on what you are making a sacrifice for.
Let’s say you are working hard to develop or sustain a career that requires you to spend more time at your desk than you do with your family. You may be working hard to earn enough money, or to get promoted, or gain recognition. But more than anything you want to be more connected to your partner, more of an influence at home and more present for your kids. But if you are trading your precious family time to get what you want at work, is the trade worth the sacrifice? Can you walk away from the office every night with your head held high?
I asked myself this very question during my most intense period as a professional opera singer.
I was traveling constantly, rehearsing all day and then performing in the evenings, and whatever time I had left I needed to spend resting to preserve my voice. So when I needed my voice to be on top form, staying away from the pub and going to bed early were fairly straight-forward compromises to make.
It wasn’t until the rehearsing and the performing and the traveling began to prise me further away from my daughter, that I knew in my heart I wasn’t dealing with compromises anymore, but sacrifices. The rope was tugging me violently towards a place I was certain I did not want to go to.
Wake up before it’s too late…
Around me I still see many singing friends who have continued to pursue careers without families of their own, and are only now coming to terms with the realization that this was never what they really wanted after all. It had finally dawned on them that the pursuit of a defining career and the love of an audience was not a fair exchange for the love of a partner or a child.
But for every driven, intelligent and ambitious woman who mourns the family she never started, there is always another, somewhere, wondering what kind of career she could have had, if only she had not exchanged it for the domesticity of home.
And it’s not just mothers who are making these sacrifices – there are fathers working under immense pressure (especially given the current financial climate) to keep their families secure, their mortgages safe and their jobs certain. But is living as a virtual stranger to your kids the best way of providing for them? Are you throwing the baby out with the bath water?
If you think you might be sitting on the wrong end of the see-saw – making sacrifices that are way off balance and making it impossible for you to gain any leverage – then isn’t it time you looked for a better way? Ask yourself the following questions, and perhaps they will help you to decide whether you are being dragged in the wrong direction:
What are you giving up and why?
Think carefully about what it is you are missing out on. Have you traded personal creativity and autonomy for a paycheck and a stable job that crushes your independence? Have you given up a promising career for your husband but secretly fear the day he may disappear with a younger model, taking your only income stream with him? Do you crave a closer, more meaningful connection with your loved ones? Are you giving up a longer, healthier life by making small, insiduous sacrifices every day when you smoke or overeat?
What do you value more?
Whether you are making a justifiable compromise, a noble sacrifice or selling your soul to the devil depends on how you value the exchange.
One person’s compromise is another’s sacrifice precisely because we each value things differently. If you place a high value on low risk security and money, then the thought of bootstrapping your own business and working for yourself will probably scare you to death…sacrificing your personal autonomy for an office cubicle may seem like perfect sense to you. But if you value family, independence and creativity, that same cubicle could well squash your will to live.
History is bursting at the seams with great leaders who valued freedom or justice above any of their own needs. Decide where your values really lie and you will have a much better guide to knowing when your compromise has tugged you too far off course.
Is it really worth the sacrifice?
This can be a difficult question to answer. It may be blatantly obvious that your priorities are out of balance, and you will be so certain that something has to give that you feel like screaming it out loud. Pulling your life back into line is easy when you are 100% certain where you want to get off.
But other times…it’s a little more fuzzy. And a lot more frightening. By asking “Is it worth it?” you challenge yourself to face up to the possibility of change and the associated fear of taking action. Do you keep sacrificing and suffocating? Or do you take action to address the imbalance?
For example, if you are putting up with an unhappy marriage because you are placing a higher value on “not being alone” than you are on “being truly loved”, is this really a compromise based on values? Or a sacrifice rooted in fear?
Are you using your sacrifices to define yourself?
As human beings with profound needs, we often discover we can get a whole lot of mileage out of being miserable. It can be very seductive to identify so intensely with our sacrifices that we can’t bear to be without them. If you are telling the same story over and over again, to yourself and those around you, you are only reinforcing your weakness. Don’t let a sacrifice – willingly made – become a desperate beacon for the attention and pity of others. It does not give you an excuse. It only serves to hold you back.
What can you do right now to make this sacrifice more of a compromise instead?
Realistically, to get more of a balance in your life you may have to start more gradually, especially if you are responsible for your family’s financial well-being. If you can’t get enough traction to change your situation straight away, why not focus on doing small things simply to improve what you can? Is there a way of changing your hours to work flexibly from home for some of the week? Can you start a business on the internet that will slowly enable you to switch from employed to self-employed without risking your current income? Look for little ways to make improvements. Focus on what you can directly influence, and don’t dwell for too long on the things that are beyond your immediate control. Just work slowly and patiently toward feeling better and happier for a little longer each day, as often as you can.
Comments – Sing It Back To Me
I know this is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are so many ways of looking at the idea of sacrifice, particularly for artists and peacemakers. I’d love to know your thoughts – when do you think a compromise becomes a sacrifice? And is a sacrifice necessarily always a bad thing? Where do you draw the line? And how have you addressed your own personal sacrifices?