The word sacrifice is loaded with power. And with media pundits discussing the great sacrifice being made not only by first responders and health care workers but also those brave souls saving lives by sitting in the basement watching Netflix, perhaps it’s time to examine what real sacrifice is.
A recent NBC/WSJ poll asked participants if they thought the COVID-19 crisis was the most significant public tragedy faced by Americans. The survey listed events such as Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the 2008 crash, and even the JFK assassination. 37% said Coronavirus was, indeed, the worst tragedy. That’s an unbelievable figure for what amounts to a disease that kills less than the seasonal flu. But perhaps they were talking about the hardships endured by all Americans.
When planes took down the twin towers, the direct effect was mostly on New Yorkers. Yes, the event rocked the very heart of the nation, but individuals could still go out with friends, get coffee, sit in the park, and reflect.
Pearl Harbor seemed such a long time ago, and again, one group of people was impacted more than any other – those who died in the initial attack, and then those who went off to war. Yes, people lost family and friends, but day-to-day living, although different, still allowed the fundamental freedom of being able to take a walk around your neighborhood.
Perhaps this is why the media is determined to turn this Coronavirus experience into the defining moment of our time – because it does affect everyone. However, the hyperbole involved and the talk of sacrifice appears to smack of desperation for a hot, all-encompassing story.
Tales of real sacrifice are unique. They force each of us to picture ourselves as the protagonist, to confront our inner heart and ask the question: Would I have the moral courage to risk losing it all in the name of a principle, a loved one, or an idea? Even just hearing stories of sacrifice makes us better people because they urge us to examine our basest fears and motivations. Throughout history, time after time, there have been huge sacrifices and moving events, the most well-known of which, and arguably the most important would be that of Jesus. But there are other, lesser-known events that cast real light on our present situation.
When we hear about sacrifices made for the greater good, all too often, it is a case of a heroic individual, making the offering of his or her life for the sake of others. But the first story I want you to think about actually involves an entire village of some 800 souls.
The Black Death
It began in 1665 in the Village of Eyam, in the north of England, not far from Sheffield. The black death was at the height of its power, running rampant across Europe and parts of England. Up until now, Eyam, being a secluded village, had survived unscathed. It’s thought that a bolt of cloth arriving from plague-ridden London had fleas in it, and those fleas, of course, carried death with them. The tailor who handled the fabric died first, and then others followed. Over just a few weeks, 40 souls had succumbed. Knowing full well that anyone of them could be next, the villagers prepared to flee to nearby towns they knew were clear of the plague.
The village clergyman, William Mompesson, understood all too well that if these folks left, they would take the plague with them, spreading disease and death to those around them. So, he set out to achieve the seemingly impossible. He convinced all 800 people to stay right where they were. These were mothers with their children and babies, husbands with their wives – all willing to take the chance that they would die to save others, even at the cost of their loved ones.
They stayed put, and by the summer of 1666, there were deaths every single day. By the time the plague burned itself out, an estimated 260 of the 800 villagers had died; this was a higher mortality rate than even London.
But they came through the other side. They had lost family and friends, neighbors, and parents. They put those they loved most in the world, and themselves, on the sacrificial altar – all for the sake of strangers.
Oddly enough, William Mompesson was one of the survivors.
Part two looks at the siege of Leningrad and the ultimate sacrifice made by a small band of scientists.
Read more from Mark Angelides.