The Psychological Meaning of Work and Sacrifice

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

Let’s talk about the postponement of pleasure! It is bothersome but necessary. In fact, it is more necessary than you want it to be. Your playful and overindulgent self, that you repress, wants to please you until your lungs and heart give out. Your pleasure centers are at war with your other mature parts, rooted in your cerebrum (the part of your brain responsible for higher-order functioning, voluntary behavior, thinking, perceiving, planning, and understanding language) that focus on the future and keep you working to ensure you have sufficient resources for survival. [5] Delaying gratification is a form of work because it is frustratingly hard to attain and maintain. It requires a lot of concentration and commitment.

What is valuable now can be exchanged for something else more valuable when we delay gratification. [1] Work is onerous and annoying but essential and central to life, so much that the ancient Jews who wrote the book of Genesis of the Holy Bible had to regard it as a curse forced upon them by God because of Original Sin.

Genesis 2:17 says “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Commentators will say this speaks of spiritual death and not physical death (though the text doesn’t specify that) because Adam lived long after the Fall, to be 930 years of age. [2] As a side note, a 930-year lifetime is biologically impossible. Nothing of the sort has ever been observed in the modern world nor do we have corroborated, ancient eyewitness accounts of such ever happening.

Moving on…

In his spiritual death, Adam became aware of his subsequent physical death, his vulnerability, and his existential limits. In applying terror management theory to Adam, he had to become aware of the future while brooding over the inevitability of death. He became aware of the future while using his cultural worldview to manage the feelings of intimidation and dread that accompany the realization of finitude. He was aware of the future while trying to minimize or ignore his existential anxiety. Such minimization and ignorance were achieved by ascribing meaning and value to various things, sticking to guidelines on moral behavior, speculating on the origins of the universe, and affirming his immortality that is rewarded to him when harmonizing himself with his cultural dictates. He used a lot of symbolic thought or at least the creators of his story lived vicariously through him by using him symbolically. As terror management theory has it, “symbolic immortality is obtained by being part of a great nation, amassing great fortunes, noteworthy accomplishments, and having children.” [3]

Adam and Eve are said to have had 7 children, though people like to suggest they had more if Adam lived to be 930 years old. We could say that Adam partook of national greatness by making offspring who would make a lineage of many others. He made such a laudable sacrifice of time, energy, and resources when he could have been stress-free and squandered away his energy and resources on just his wife and himself. And how splendid it had to be for the ancient Jews to vicariously enjoy great fortunes through writing and telling the story of Abraham who was blessed with much livestock, silver, and gold (Genesis 13:2). Through this story, they could idealize the benefits of future investment or the giving up of things now to gain greater things later. It is no accident that the concept of sacrifice is broached in the Bible’s chapters following the story of the Fall. [1]

Perhaps we can say that animals engage in work and sacrifice, but our kind is inimitable. A bird building a nest or a spider weaving its web are following the insuperable laws of their nature whereas humans encounter ambivalence when it comes to working and planning and sacrificing for the future. Do we want to relax, play, or work now or do it later? This battle seems to be constant. [1]

But to talk about delayed gratification as if it is merely that and nothing else would make it a dull and run-of-the-mill subject when it’s not. It’s profound beyond what we realize, at first. At some point in history, we pulled away the curtain to see what secrets lie behind the purpose of delayed gratification. We discovered its causal relationship with time and human volition. [1] Especially in cases of privation, delayed gratification unsettles or confronts our most primitive impulses. At some point in our history, to learn how to manage our impulses, the value of sacrifice and work made itself very clear to us. We learned that we can negotiate with reality and the future. When we envision a time that has yet to exist, we negotiate with it by employing good social comportment, impulse inhibition, empathy for another’s predicament, and beliefs that are strategic and compartmentalized. This way, we make deep connections with others and ourselves that facilitate reward-making. We learn to trust ourselves when we don’t adversely interfere with our future selves. Others invest their trust in us when we don’t adversely interfere with their futures. Therefore, we have the social contract—implicit agreement between humans cooperating with each other for reciprocal benefits—underpinning and propelling today’s efforts for tomorrow’s quality that has an organization and reliability stored in people’s promise-making. [1]

All of that sheds light on our potential for future planning and negotiating, though our skills for retirement planning in the 21st Century don’t reflect that potential very well. Evidently, in this fast-paced and busily technologized world, we insist on seeing our future selves as strangers, being disparate from our current selves. Thus, we are so inclined to procrastinate on big decisions like starting a 401k, flattening our protrusive bellies at the gym, and changing our moral character to be a better husband/wife. We like to assume the future “other” will have more time and resources to make everything right. It’s not until after the fact that we learn our future self is just the same as our current unprogressing self. [10]

This dichotomy of future and present selves was explored in a Princeton University experiment where participants were asked to make “real or hypothetical decisions” about the amount of a distasteful liquid that their present and future selves could ingest. Those scheduled to drink on the day thereof could only decide to drink two tablespoons whereas those scheduled to drink next semester could decide on ingesting half of a cup. [10]

Back to discussing delayed gratification…

Humanity underwent great pains to realize the utility of delaying gratification. Such utility can only be realized when civilization is sufficiently stable for allowing future rewards to exist. You aren’t going to save or build anything if signs and omens tell you everything will be stolen or swept away with a tide or tornado. Only nonhuman entities can devour and gorge on many pounds of raw meat without any awareness as to how the future will punish them for the mistake. Uniquely for humans, we can feel the compunction almost immediately after the binging and begin anticipating the ensuing hunger pains for the next week. So, if many sacrifices were needed to build a stable society, but stability must precede sacrifice, how did we as homo sapiens get to where we are today, stemming from millions of years ago? [1]

Jordan Peterson’s quoted words below explain it better than I can:

“First, there is excess food. Large carcasses, mammoths, or other massive herbivores might provide that. (We ate a lot of mammoths. Maybe all of them.) After a kill, with a large animal, there is some left for later. That’s accidental, at first—but, eventually, the utility of ‘for later’ starts to be appreciated. Some provisional notion of sacrifice develops, at the same time: ‘If I leave some, even if I want it now, I won’t have to be hungry later.’ That provisional notion develops, to the next level (‘If I leave some for later, I won’t have to go hungry, and neither will those I care for’) and then to the next (‘I can’t possibly eat all of this mammoth, but I can’t store the rest for too long, either. Maybe I should feed some to other people. Maybe they’ll remember, and feed me some of their mammoth, when they have some and I have none. Then I’ll get some mammoth now, and some mammoth later. That’s a good deal. And maybe those I’m sharing with will come to trust me, more generally. Maybe then we could trade forever’). In such a manner, ‘mammoth’ becomes ‘future mammoth,’ and ‘future mammoth’ becomes ‘personal reputation.’ That’s the emergence of the social contract.” [1]

It was in the 1960s when Ph.D.-winner, Walter Mischel, used children in his self-control experiments called the Marshmallow test. A child was given a plate of marshmallows and asked to put off eating until the adult came back into the room. Victorious self-control would award the child with two marshmallows instead of only one as a consequence of being unable to wait. Mischel and colleagues were inspired to develop a “hot-and-cool” cognitive paradigm for explaining the successes and failures of willpower. The cool side is your mature capacity to rationally reflect on the consequences of obeying your triggers whereas the hot side is the part that gives into the triggers, impetuously. Willpower loses the war when the hot side overcomes the cool side, allowing us to see how people can exist on a continuum of rashness and sensitivity to triggers and how such sensitivity can influence their behavior throughout life. This was part of Mischel’s discovery when he reexamined his test subjects as adolescents and found that those who kept their patience as preschoolers went on to develop a great likelihood of getting high SAT scores and would reportedly become great planners, great stress-handlers, and rational thinkers in life, and be able to block out distractions and maintain self-control in anxiety-provoking times. [6] These test subjects would be tracked down and reexamined in their 40s, producing the same results. Some subjects had their brain activity examined through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and it was found that those high in self-control also had a more active prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive functions and making choices) whereas those low in self-control had a more active ventral striatum (responsible for desires and rewards). [6]

Leave it up to Smithsonian.com to report in 2018 that Mischel’s experimental work, which had been preponderant in children’s self-control studies since 1990, was made obsolete by researchers Tyler Watts from New York University and Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan from the University of California-Irvine. Perhaps Mischel’s sample size was too small if this 21st Century research involving 900 children causes results to vary when we factor in different socioeconomic, ethnic, and education statuses and home environments. This conclusively left Watts to say that “differences in the ability to delay gratification do not necessarily translate into meaningful differences later in life.” [7]

The Atlantic’s Jessica McCrory Calarco concluded that parental and authoritative examples of sheer willpower would not be influential but instead the wealth and material comfort from one’s upbringing would be influential in the decision to prematurely eat the marshmallow. [8] She is quoted as thus:

“For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. … Meanwhile, for kids who come from households headed by parents who are better educated and earn more money, it’s typically easier to delay gratification: Experience tends to tell them that adults have the resources and financial stability to keep the pantry well stocked.” [8]

Though ritual sacrifice to God is heinous and unforgivable to modern folks, it was a part of the ancient people’s drama and myth that they had to act out to personify the Administrator of fate with whom they had to bargain and trade as a sophisticated form of exercising the value of deferred delights. As many humans exist in our future—often those who have observed and judged the most infinitesimal aspects of our past behaviors—treating an invisible being as if it is truly intelligent and sentient helps us to deal with the foreseeable humans of our future. As God is someone high up on an isolated and unapproachable throne, monitoring and recording about everything you do, the future is also like a judgmental father, as Jordan Peterson states. [1]

There must be a logic behind work: sacrifice now, gain later. But we are always left with the question: what should I sacrifice? Small sacrifices can help us solve small problems. For instance, you postpone some frolicking to do some extra hours at your workplace to pay for last month’s rent that you missed. There are other larger and more complex sacrifices you can make to outwit your life’s complex and large enemies. For instance, studying for many hours a day in medical or law school instead of participating in libidinous nightly partying helps to avoid a drained bank account sometime soon and greatly increases the possibility of making plenty of money in the future to pay all of your bills, keep a car, and keep a house while you engage in some safe partying later. [1]

The next question that always haunts us is: “What is the best, most pleasing, most trustworthy, and safest sacrifice(s) of all? If that sacrifice is tenable, what is the greatest good and greatest future I can achieve with that?” These are the jolting questions that penetrate much of our lives as we spend virtually all our time trying to solve them. Alas, all sacrifices do not share equal worth, even the most commendable, pricey, time-consuming, energy-depriving, refined, and studious ones. Quite often, our costly investments don’t generate huge returns nor a better future. [1]

Such unfairness that can be so readily observed in the natural world is also suitably shown in the story of Cain and Abel. Abel’s altar-based sacrifices and ritual works are pleasing to God and rewarded handsomely whereas Cain’s are not. The Biblical text is unclear as to God’s reasons for the unfairness and botched bargain, though it is speculated that Cain could have been lackadaisical in preparing his offering or had a sour attitude that caused God’s rejection. [9] This is similar to how we are often left questioning the undisclosed reasons as to why our present situations are not changing and our future is not looking any less inauspicious. We find it unfair that we can’t know for sure as to why. But the “why” could be irrelevant to what we should be pursuing most, which is: did we exercise our best efforts, and if not, how could we have done better?

I suppose we could say that we can always do better at our relationships with our neighbors and strangers. We can observe, even in ourselves today, the very unlearned and deep-seated, timorous feelings for the stranger. The stranger feels likewise about us. At some point during human history, there was the first society of people who were strangers to each other but overcame their unfamiliarity through social interaction supported by trustworthiness that was proven by fair transactions. The newcomer asked a neighbor for a very easy and doable favor, inviting the latter to ask the former for a favor in return based on an implied but agreeable debt. Someone in the very distant past had to be the first to overcome the puerile fear that sharing meant giving away something valuable to get nothing in return. They had to instead learn that proper sharing means a process of exchange—one thing for another. Without trade, no friends can be made. Having something is better than nothing and to have more, you must be generous. To be well-known as a generous person inspires much generosity to returned to you by many others. Loyal, honest, steadfast, generous, truthful sharing is exemplary of being a good citizen, and this is fluently displayed in religious texts. The development of such virtue was slow and painful during the tens or hundreds of thousands of years preceding recorded history, myth, and drama. Metaphorical abstractions embodied in ritual and represented by tales of sacrifice could increase in communication once the written human word became practical. This is because words written and spoken together augment the senses focusing on an omnipotent and omnipresent deity judging you for your failed sharing and failed sacrifices, and with the human senses being augmented, you can feel more motivated to modify your sharing practices to ensure God is happy. The virtue of sharing may have not always been explicitly expressed in the tales, but the virtue was at least implicitly understood. Thousands of years of humans watching those succeed by practicing temperance and those fail by hedonism and gluttony helped us to really learn that life will show its benevolence more if you perfect your sacrificing and sharing skills. [1]

God not only rewards sacrificers. He also rewards those who sacrifice their most treasured things. This is so tactlessly, barbarically, and bewilderingly exemplified in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Isaac was Abraham’s and Rebekah’s long-awaited son who they could not have until their very old age. When Isaac was a young boy, God demanded Abraham to sacrifice him as a burnt offering on an altar. The story is bewildering and unbelievable because it is said that Abraham did it unhesitatingly and had faith that God would provide a way out, though God never explicitly stated this. The story has a happy ending because an angel of the Lord stops Abraham’s hand from plunging the weapon into Isaac and a ram was sacrificed in lieu of Isaac. [4] It is funny how the ancient Jews could think of a harrowing story like this, and then not answer the question we all want to know: what is the necessity for God doing this? Why does God—why does life—take us to the brink of such loss and madness and then pull us away at the very last second? And to be even franker, why do things have to transpire with an ending that leaves us unhappy and inconsolable almost for the rest of our lives?

This seems to be the ways of the natural world, with all the pestilences, food shortages, natural disasters, despotic governments, and treacheries included. But is the world entirely to blame or can we look to what we value and everything else, subjective and personal within us? The world is, for the most part, unveiled through the kaleidoscope of our values and desires. If the world around you is not what you want, the light at the end of the tunnel can begin with evaluating your desires. Change and adaptations can begin by ditching your current assumptions. Letting go can be more heavenly than you suspect to be heartbreaking. It may be time to let go of what you cherish most to reach your next level of potential instead of remaining subpar as you are.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

[1] 12 Rules for Life (2018), Jordan Peterson, pg.164

[2] https://answersingenesis.org/death-before-sin/genesis-2-17-you-shall-surely-die/

[3] https://ernestbecker.org/resources/terror-management-theory/

[4] https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-stories/abraham-and-isaac-bible-story.html

[5] http://www.brainfacts.org/Brain-Anatomy-and-Function/Anatomy/2012/Mapping-the-Brain

[6] https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower-gratification.pdf

[7] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/new-research-marshmallow-test-suggests-delayed-gratification-doesnt-equal-success-180969234/

[8] https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/06/marshmallow-test/561779/

[9] https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_714.cfm

[10] https://www.vox.com/2014/12/18/7414105/procrastination-future-planning

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