Jung On The Blessings in Sacrifice

“… the problem of sacrifice [may seem to be]… a purely individual problem, but if we examine the way it is worked out we shall see that it is something that must be a problem for humanity in general.”
Jung (1950)[1]

“[when]… an act of sacrifice takes place,… a process of transformation is going on in the unconscious whose dynamism, whose contents and whose subject are themselves unknown but become visible indirectly to the conscious mind…”
Jung (1950)[2]

“… sacrifice proves that you possess yourself, for it does not mean just letting yourself be passively taken: it is a conscious and deliberate self-surrender, which proves that you have full control of yourself, that is, of your ego….”
Jung (1954)[3]

“… a painful sacrifice can be risked with a mighty effort of will. If successful…–the sacrifice bears blessed fruit,…”
Jung (1935)[4]

“We don’t want to deny ourselves.”
Suze Orman (2011)[5]

“The 1980s worshiped spending. The 1990s worshiped debt. The twenty-first century belongs to the saver.”
Jane Bryant Quinn (2009)[6]


The beginnings of this essay go back to a dream I had several months ago—one of those rare “voice-over” dreams I get every so often—that said “Sacrifices will have to be made by Americans.”[7] When I mentioned this to some students, their responses were uniformly negative, reflecting the common attitude we have in our culture. Given that attitude, the title of this essay surely seems bizarre. As the above quote from Jung indicates, I am not alone in thinking sacrifice can be something positive: Jung also saw blessings in sacrifice. This essay examines Jung’s thoughts on “sacrifice” and extends his idea into our current collective situation.

We will begin our consideration of the blessings in sacrifice by defining the term. Then we will examine why we, as a society, put such a negative connotation on “sacrifice,” and in the final section, why it is not only desirable but necessary for us, individually and collectively, to change our attitude and regard sacrifice as opening opportunities and possibilities that can enrich our lives.


What “Sacrifice” Means

Etymology—the branch of language study that identifies the roots of words—gives us the core meaning of “sacrifice.” Jung himself reminds us of what goes on when we “sacrifice,” when he notes that the word comes from two Latin roots: sacerand facere, “to make holy.”[8] When we sacrifice, we are doing something sacred.

The dictionary adds more meanings, e.g. as a noun “sacrifice” can mean “a giving up of one thing for another; destruction or surrender of something valued or desired for the sake of a higher object or more pressing claim;” as a verb, “to make an offering of;… to permit… disadvantage to, for the sake of something else….”[9] We sacrifice pleasure for business to meet the expectations of a demanding boss. Good parents sacrifice themselves, their time and freedom, to raise their children. In some cases they sacrifice their own retirement security to save for their childrens’ college educations. In a successful analysis, there comes a point when the analysand sacrifices the tie to the analyst in order to move ahead with his/her life (giving up the transferential tie in doing so). Jung felt that this sacrifice would “bear blessed fruit.”[10]

There are multiple passages in Jung’s works[11] where he discusses the various meanings and usages of “sacrifice.” Many of these relate to the long history in early civilizations when sacrifices were made—of both animals and human beings—to appease the gods or to guarantee a fruitful harvest. Jung also notes how in mythologies (and also, in modern contexts, in times of war) the hero will voluntarily sacrifice himself for his comrades or some higher goal.[12] When Congressional Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously, the President will speak of the soldier having made the “supreme sacrifice.”

Such is the stuff of heroes. But Jung recognized each of us can be a hero in our own lives by taking up sacrifice, in the form of the conscious choice to make the “descent down the sunset way”[13] as we age. In the prime of life, when we are living at “the top of the world,”[14] it is a “hard task” to look ahead to the future and admit the inevitability of aging and death. Going “down the sunset way” can be done voluntarily in what Jung felt “… is a sacrifice which daunts even the gods.”[15] The key word here is “voluntarily.” Jung saw a big difference between a voluntary sacrifice and one that is forced upon us: “Things go very differently when the sacrifice is a voluntary one.”[16]

This is a valuable piece of advice that Jung is giving us here: By the attitude we take toward sacrifice, we make it easier or harder for ourselves. If we recognize the rewards, the benefits—yes, even the blessings—that lie within sacrifice, we can make it a much richer and more meaningful experience. But many forces in our society work against our viewing sacrifice in a positive way. Let’s examine some of these forces.


Why Americans Find Sacrifice So Unappealing

The foremost force working against a positive attitude toward sacrifice is the deep materialism of our culture. This materialistic ethos is unconscious: Much like the fish is unaware of the water all around it, so we “swim” in the pervasive “sea” of materialism, focused on “stuff”—acquiring the tangible things of life, satisfying the senses, gratifying our physical appetites. Rarely in this society are we encouraged to look beyond material goods to consider intangible goods, like morals, ethics, care of the soul, or feeding the spirit. Materialism tells us that we are fundamentally physical beings, embodied, and that this physical plane is all there is.[17]

More than just stressing materialism, American society hammers into us a thousand times a day that we are “consumers,” and that, as such, it is our civic duty to spend, spend, spend. When crisis befalls us, the politicians get up and tell us to get out to the stores and buy stuff, get on airplanes and take vacations.[18] When the markets swoon, officials urge us to seize the opportunity to buy stocks at bargain prices. The world now looks to the American consumer as the global engine of economic well-being![19] Such an attitude cannot but lead to “consumeritis,”[20] that societal disease of chronic “getting and spending”[21] that has such dire environmental, ecological and spiritual consequences.

Closely linked to our collective identity as consumers is the corruption of civic virtue. Once upon a time (generations ago) Americans thought highly of thrift, frugality, simplicity, and saving. The anonymous New England maxim

“Use it up, wear it out;

Make it do, or do without.”[22]

sums up how our ancestors embodied a set of virtues that enshrined the concept of sacrifice in our collective culture. These values served our grandparents and great-grandparents well as they lived through the Great Depression in the 1930’s.

After World War II, the specter of the Depression haunted our leaders. They were determined that those terrible economic times would not recur, and so they set about doing what they could to prevent a future economic debacle by fostering a different set of civic values. “Planned obsolescence” was one of them—the conscious, deliberate development of products that would wear out within a short interval, thus assuring that the “consumer” (this means you and me) would have to go buy another. Advertising agencies were encouraged to redefine their target audiences as “consumers” and pitch to our unconscious insecurities,[23] and in a very short time (the mid- to late-1950’s) a wholesale shift occurred in the values that drove our society. “Keeping up with the Joneses” became a goal for many Americans as they bought houses in the new suburbs, furnished those houses, and bought into the “American dream.”

 O tempora! O mores![24]Our collective dream was a very materialistic dream, a dream that threw over so much wisdom for the sake of a mess of stuff! The result? Try to be thrifty today, practice frugality now, try to get a toaster or iron repaired in this economy and people will look at you like you are crazy. Cobblers (those skilled craftsmen that repair shoes) are a dying breed. Small appliance repair shops are as hard to find as living dinosaurs. Mention that you are living frugally and people look at you in puzzlement.[25] In such a society it is no wonder sacrifice is seen as a negative.

A third reason why we Americans look askance at sacrifice is more subtle: our social pathology of narcissism. I am using “narcissism” here in a moral context, to critique the selfishness and self-absorption that have developed in the last 50 years.[26] Signs of this narcissism include the widespread fear of old age and death, the cult of celebrity, disdain for weakness and compromise, competitive individualism, and lust for self-aggrandizement[27]—all of these represented in the infamous bumper sticker that says “He who dies with the most toys, wins!”

Reflecting this narcissism is a strong sense of entitlement. We think we deservethat new car, the expensive vacation, the souped-up motorcycle, the big diamond ring. We find it difficult, even impossible, to deny ourselves and are unable to distinguish what we want from what we need. I see this every week when I watch the Suze Orman show,[28] during which people call in to see if they can afford this or that. The vast majority of the time Suze tells them they cannotafford what they want. During the segment that aired on August 27, 2011, Suze noted how we Americans “don’t want to deny ourselves.” The driver of this attitude is the social sickness of narcissistic selfishness.

A final reason why sacrifice is hard is the result of materialism, selfishness and the unmooring of our value system : spiritual malaise. When matter is all there is, when life is little more than constant consuming and “achievement” gets defined by the number of one’s “toys,” it is not surprising that things of the spirit get short shrift. Soul tending and spiritual development are given little consideration in mainstream American culture. The consequence is a profound inner hollowness that shows up in a pervasive sense of insecurity and meaninglessness. No amount of stuff will satisfy spiritual hunger or fill the void in a life alienated from its soul.

Jung knew this. For him the soul was real and made demands just as real as the need for food, water and air. As a society we need to listen to Jung, and come to recognize the blessings and healing potential in sacrifice. What are some of these blessings?


The Blessings in Sacrifice

For the sake of clarity, I’m going to discuss the myriad blessings in categories: the personal fiscal/financial benefits; the moral reasons; the blessings related to economic and social justice; the spiritual benefits; and finally, Jung’s thoughts on the psychological benefits in sacrifice.

The Personal Fiscal/Financial Benefits in Sacrifice. As I noted in my biography of him,[29] Jung was not one for money management: he left that to his wife Emma, and his brother-in-law. So, for this section, my sources will be more contemporary: Suze Orman and Jane Bryant Quinn. The quote that opened this essay from Jane Bryant Quinn—that the 21st century belongs to the saver[30]—identifies the financial blessings in sacrifice. When you say “No” to the desire for that new dress, to your kid’s demand for an iPad, to your craving for the “newest new thing” you can save. You can live within your income. You can get out of debt. You take control of your financial life. You can secure your future. Suze Orman is explicit about this:

The financial crisis has served as a deafening wake-up call that will not stop ringing in your ears. You know in the very core of your being that you need to change how you run your financial life. There’s no room anymore for just getting by or putting off the hard decisions for tomorrow. Tomorrow is here, and it requires a commitment to taking the actions that put you and your family on a lasting path to financial security.[31]

The last few years in our economic history have been a “wake up call” to get us to realize that “We are all vulnerable in times like these.”[32] And those with lots of consumer debt, with houses underwater, living paycheck to paycheck, with no savings are the most vulnerable.

Fiscal prudence demands that we appreciate and begin to practice sacrifice. Suze Orman gives us some tips on how to go about this: “Separate wants from needs. Get over your guilt that you aren’t ‘providing’ for your kids. Strike the word ‘deserve’ from the conversation. What you deserve is irrelevant; what you can truly afford is all that counts… Decide once and for all if you want to indulge or protect your family…. Set a goal to live a debt-free life. If you cannot afford it, do not buy it.”[33] To do this means turning a deaf ear to all the TV ads pitched to our insecurities, trying to get us to buy this or that. It means standing up to the peer pressure your kids feel when all their friends have the latest technological gadget or gizmo and they don’t—and turning this situation into a teachable moment. In this way you will help your child develop a better set of values, more independence of mind and the ability to distinguish between what he/she wants and what he/she really needs.

Suze Orman recognizes that we are living in changing times, and as a result we need to change the old vision of the American dream—which was built on “getting and spending”—into a new American dream built on living within our means. Suze sees real opportunity in the current crisis:

… I believe that the very severity of the crisis means that we will choose to make lasting changes that will put us on a path to a healthier and more vibrant future. Crises force us to take a clear-eyed view of what went wrong and compel us to make necessary adjustments to avoid the same pain and suffering again.

            The period of reflection we are in right now has forced us to focus on a difficult reworking of our relationship with money. The era of living beyond our means is giving way to an age of living a more meaningful life based on financial honesty.[34]

Speaking of “honesty” brings us to a second blessing in sacrifice: moral change.

The Moral Benefit in Sacrifice. When we fail to live within our means, when we rack up huge balances on credit cards, when we go deeper into debt in the name of indulging our kids, we are not being honest. When we can no longer distinguish a “want” from a “need” we have lost our moral moorings. Jane Bryant Quinn reminds us that “Your spending reflects your values.”[35] With our appetites for “junk foods” and “fast foods,” for entertaining tintillations and sophisticated technologies that become obsolete every other year, our spending habits reflect a culture that is morally bankrupt, with a set of values that is serving us very poorly.

What to do? Suze Orman sees the way out: “Honesty. With yourself. With your partner. With your children….”[36] By facing up to what we can honestly afford, financially, and by sacrificing the wants, desires, and lusts we cannot afford, we can turn around our personal and collective situation and help to restore a wholesome moral sense to our society.

Conscious, voluntary sacrifice can also set a sound moral example for our children. Suze Orman is clear about this, in the face of parents who feel that “depriving” their children of what they want is punishing them:

…the real problem here is that you think acting responsibly with your money will be punishment for your kids. You think that by slowing down the spending you are taking something away from them. I couldn’t disagree more. I see it as protecting them. When you make the commitment to spend less, you will have more money to put toward what your family needs: lasting financial security.

            “And I have to tell you: How receptive will your kids be to the change comes down to how you sell it. If you are moping, if they can feel your guilt, they are going to feel lousy. Your kids don’t deserve that.

            “Children are incredibly adaptable, and they are going to take their cues from you….[37]

If parents recognize the positive aspects of sacrifice, of living within one’s means, they become moral exemplars for their children, providing them with teachable moments that will serve them well as they grow and learn sound financial management. Such parents also prepare their children to live in the interdependent global world that is our new reality—a world where economic injustice is a growing concern.

The Social/Economic Justice Blessings in Sacrifice. “Economic injustice” refers to the fact that the United States is the world’s greatest glutton, consuming 33 % of the world’s resources each year, while representing only 4.6% of the world’s population.[38] The average American consumes around 20 times more meat and fish and 60 times more paper, gasoline and diesel fuel each year than the average person in India.[39] We gobble up 136 billion gallons of petroleum each year in our insistence on driving gas-guzzling SUVs.[40] We devour 33,660 tons of meat,[41] most of it raised on ecologically-destructive feedlots that release some 2.9 million metric tons of methane gas into the atmosphere.[42] Beyond our extreme levels of consumption, we are also wasteful. Our “throwaway society” tosses out 305 million aluminum cans, 426,000 cell phones, 27 million plastic bags, and 576 million plastic bottles every day.[43]

These habits of consumption and waste contribute to gross inequality. I saw this on one of my trips to Africa, when I visited the black township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town. At one point I asked what the annual income was for a typical family there and was stunned to discover that a family of four could live for an entire year on what a New York corporate lawyer earns in one hour!

Such gross inequities cannot last. As a society, Americans mustbegin to cut back, to reduce waste and consumption, to consider the environmental impact of our daily lifestyle choices, and this means sacrifice—giving up indulging our wants and learning to live within not only our personal means, but within the limitations of planet Earth. Sacrifice in this context means blessings not only for us as individuals, but for the other peoples living with us, and for Earth itself.

The Spiritual Blessings in Sacrifice. Earlier I noted Suze Orman’s recent statement that we Americans don’t want to deny ourselves.[44] This fact speaks to the narcissism of the culture as well as to our spiritual malaise. Self-indulgence feeds our ego desires and hinders spiritual growth. Jesus recognized this when he said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”[45] Self-denial is a key feature of spiritual living. By “self” here is meant the ego. It is the ego that wants to take that trip to Findthorn, that wants the diamond ring, that would go to “Elf School” in Iceland for $3,000.[46] It is ego that would give in to childrens’ pleas for stuff the family budget cannot afford. It is ego that says you have to have that new dress, the new car, the latest tech gadget.

The Self—our inner Divine core—has other desires. It asks us to “take up our cross,” i.e. to hold the tensions in modern life that show up as conflicting demands and pressures on us to spend, consume, measure up to the expectations of our materialistic culture, and to resist taking the easy way out. When we recognize the spiritual blessing in self-denial—sacrifice—we understand that we cannot infuse life with meaning if we indulge our material desires. We can get no true sense of purpose in life if we are focused on mindless consumerism. Meaning and purpose, moral direction and personal honesty all become possible when we come to appreciate sacrifice. Individuation also is fostered through sacrifice, which brings us to the final section of this essay.

Jung’s Thoughts on the Blessings in Sacrifice. Jung discusses the psychological meaning of “sacrifice” at length in “Psychology and Religion: West and East.”[47] He defines “sacrifice” in practical terms as the “giving up of something that belongs to you.”[48] He understands this is difficult because what is ours has a certain identity with our ego, since we tend to identify with our things.[49]

We also tend to project unconscious contents on to our things (or on to stuff we want to buy), and to the extent that things carry our projections, they become more than what they are in themselves: they come to function as symbols.[50] That is, they have acquired several layers of meaning.[51] That ring is not just a ring: it has come to symbolize a marriage, a commitment, a love. That trip to Findthorn is not just a holiday, but a way to connect with friends, to support a collective endeavor, maybe to hone psychic abilities. Rarely are we aware of projecting on to our stuff, and even more rarely do we recognize how our possessions (or desired objects) have become symbols.

So Jung reminds us that when we sacrifice, we are giving up a part of ourselves.[52] We are relinquishing projections, and because these projections are unconscious, we are not aware of why the sacrifice is so hard. We just know it is. It hurts. We feel deprived.

But Jung also reminds us of the blessing buried here: If you can give something up it means you possess yourself.

… sacrifice proves that you possess yourself, for it does not mean just letting yourself be passively taken: it is a conscious and deliberate self-surrender, which proves that you have full control of yourself, that is, of your ego….[53]

A sacrifice that is a conscious and deliberate self-surrender demonstrates that you have ego control. The sacrifices that really matter, that really hurt, affect us and force us to overcome ourselves. These sacrifices challenge the ego personality, and in doing so, help us gain the Self.[54] As Jesus said, by denying ourself (i.e. the ego) we contact our inner divinity. The Self demands sacrifice. Only by putting the ego in its place, subordinate to the Self, can we realize true blessing in life and achieve wholeness.

This is the psychological gift in sacrifice: “sacer” means “holy.” The root of our English word “holy” also means “whole.” When we sacrifice our ego needs and wants to what the Self would have with us, we foster our individuation.[55] Jesus put this in terms of “losing one’s life” so as to gain one’s life. If we are willing to sacrifice the ego-driven life, with all its mundane desires, we make possible a Self-directed life of full of meaning, purpose, wholeness and spiritual riches.



I knew I could not articulate all this to my students in a few short sentences, when I first shared my voice-over dream with them. Hence this essay. It is important to understand the value of sacrifice because I (as well as Suze Orman) know the hard times are not over. We have years ahead when sacrifices will be essential,[56] and we need to know that in every sacrifice there are manifold blessings. We can live more honestly, more morally, more mindfully, more responsibly—thanks to the sacrifices we make. Jung would remind us that sacrifices done voluntarily can also foster our individuation. I am hopeful that we will be able to continue and extend this discussion of sacrifice in our activities at The Jungian Center.



Belsie, Laurent (2009), “US consumer spending is no engine for recovery,” The Christian Science Monitor; http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/new-economy/2009/0813/US-consumer-spending-is-no-engine-for-recovery

Jung, C.G.(1956), “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Moelaert, John (1974), “The Epidemic in Our Midst,” Earthkeeping: Readings in Human Ecology, eds. Charles Juzek & Susan Mehrtens. Pacific Grove CA: The Boxwood Press.

Orman, Suze (2009), Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan.New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Quinn, Jane Bryant (2009), Making the Most of Your Money Now. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rogers, Heather (2010), Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution. New York: Scribner.

Tart, Charles (2009), The End of Materialism. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Wachtel, Paul (1989), The Poverty of Affluence: A Psychological Portrait of the American Way of Life. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.


[1] Collected Works5, ¶645. Hereafter Collected Workswill be abbreviated CW.

[2] Ibid., ¶669.

[3] CW11, ¶390.

[4] CW7, ¶207.

[5] “The Suze Orman Show,” 27 August 2011.

[6] Quinn (2009), 209.

[7] I had this dream on 19 August 2011.

[8] CW11, ¶303.

[9] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1706.

[10] CW7, ¶207.

[11] Cf. ibid. and ¶208; CW12, ¶417; CW14, ¶525; CW5, ¶s354,461,553,639,643-6,650,657-9,660,668-9,

671,674,675; CW11, ¶s7,303,381-413.

[12] CW5, ¶645.

[13] Ibid., ¶553.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Tart (2009), 295.

[18] President George W. Bush urged Americans to do these things shortly after 9/11.

[19] Belsie (2009). This makes sense given the fact that 70% of all economic activity in the United States is based on consumption; Rogers (2010).

[20] “Consumeritis” is the disease that long-term consuming can lead to. The term was coined by Canadian environmentalist John Moelaert; Moelaert (1974), 219.

[21] William Wordsworth’s term for the terrible change he saw befalling his society. The poem is titled “The World is Too Much With Us.” “The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” (1806).

[22] Bartlett’s Quotations(1968), 1102.

[23] Rogers (2010), 191. I witnessed the very intentional effort to exploit individuals’ insecurities when I worked with an ad agency in 1992-1995.

[24] This was a favorite expostulation of Cicero, lamenting the decline he saw in the dying days of the Roman Republic; the Latin means “Oh times! Oh customs!”

[25] I get this response frequently.

[26] For the thoughtful discussion of collective narcissism, in a moral (rather than a psychological) sense, see Wachtel (1989), 221-241.

[27] Ibid., 226-7.

[28] You can catch Suze’s show on Saturday nights, 9PM EST, on CNBC. For some viewers this station may be a high-end cable station and so may be beyond what is affordable.

[29] Archived on this blog site, posted in April through September 2011.

[30] Quinn (2009), 209.

[31] Orman (2009), 101.

[32] Ibid., 32.

[33] Ibid., 102.

[34] Ibid., 207.

[35] Quinn (2009), 200.

[36] Orman (2009), 19.

[37] Ibid., 109-110.

[38] I got these figures from the World Resources Institute’s Earth Trends Web site: http://earthtrends.wrl.org/updates/node/236.

[39] Rogers (2010), 196, quoting the World Resources Institute.

[40] My source for this figure is the U.S. Energy Information Administration; their Web site is:

[41] Bittman (2008).

[42]My source for this figure if the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Web site: http://www.fao.org/WAIRDOCS/LEAD/X6111E/x6111e05.htm#b16-3.2.1.%200methane%20emission%20from%20the%20dig

[43] These statistics come from “Running the Numbers,” Chris Jordan’s Web site: http://www.chrisjordan.com

[44] She said this on her show of 27 August 2011.

[45] Matt. 16:24.

[46] I’m not making this up: This actually was something a woman wanted to buy when she called into Suze Orman’s show. Suze denied her.

[47] CW11, ¶381-413.

[48] Ibid., ¶389.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., ¶390.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., ¶398.

[55] Ibid., ¶390.

[56] Orman (2009), 6.