Roth: No, we've got our own people to worry about. We'll need to regroup as soon as they find Sam.
Lara: (disbelievingly) I can't just leave him out there alone! I need to get to him.
Roth: (gently) Sometimes you've got to make sacrifices, Lara. You can't save everyone.
Lara: (annoyed) I know about sacrifices.
Roth: (patiently) No, you know about loss. Sacrifice is a choice you make. Loss is a choice made for you.
Lara: I can't choose to let him die, Roth.
I was thinking of this conversation recently in light of events in my own life. It’s an exchange between two characters in Tomb Raider, the 2013 reboot of the earlier (rather simplistic, from what I’ve been told) video game franchise. The 2013 version is not simplistic --- yes, I’ve played it, and yes, I like it a lot. Lara, our protagonist, goes through a nicely done emotional growth arc through the game, beginning as a scared young woman asking for Roth to come and get her after their shipwreck and washing ashore on a jungle-covered island leaves them separated, and ending with her as quite the kick-ass heroine who’s prepared to do whatever’s necessary to survive. And every once in a while --- quite pleasantly often for a video game (I’m really not trying to be condescending, I swear) --- there’s a little nugget of dialogue that is pretty good. Perhaps not deathlessly immortal philosophy, but pretty good and worthy of a little thought. Like the exchange above.
Loss vs. sacrifice. Choice made for you vs. choice you make. Hmm. It’s a good thing to keep in mind regardless of whether you’re doing it in terms of your own real life context, or a literary one.
Sacrifice is something we have control over. We can choose to sacrifice, or not --- although sometimes, as Lara makes the point above, we don’t always feel like we have a great deal of control over the situation. But we do. In the case of sacrifice, we always do. Choosing our actions is, really, about the only thing in life we do have control over. Even Gandalf says so. (There. That’s my obligatory Tolkien reference for the day taken care of, for those of you who are keeping count.) The only question to be resolved --- and sometimes, you admittedly don’t have a great deal of time to toss the issue around in your thoughts (particularly in a crisis situation) --- is whether you can look at yourself in the mirror afterwards and live comfortably with what you see.
Loss is a totally different thing, as Roth patiently points out to Lara: it’s a choice made for you, and frequently, it’s very hard to live with, even though it’s an inescapable part of the human condition. I think this is primarily because our culture is obsessed with the idea of being in control all the time --- although as I’ve said before, I find such obsession peculiar, because control is, frankly, an illusion. How do you come back from loss? Dodinsky, a bestselling author who seems not to have a first name (at least one he wants to share with the rest of us, anyway) says, “Grieving is a necessary passage and a difficult transition to finally letting go of sorrow --- it is not a permanent rest stop” and I think he’s onto something there. Sorrow is not useless, contrary to what Samuel Johnson asserted --- as long as it’s not endless. We grieve loss. Our characters grieve loss. It needs to be done as a part of letting go.
Perhaps we should leave the (nearly) last words to C.S. Lewis. He was devastated by the loss of his wife when she died of cancer, but was eventually able to observe, in the midst of his devastation: “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”
There’s hope in that.