The Union Army stood three miles from victory.
After killing or wounding a quarter of Robert E. Lee’s troops the previous day, a final charge could have spelled the end of the Civil War. With the Potomac River at their backs, the Confederates braces themselves for a final stand on September 18th, 1862.
All day they waited. Nothing happened.
Outnumbered 3-to-1, Lee’s forces were somehow able to slip across the river and back into Virginia. The war would last another two and a half years.
This wasn’t the first time General George B. McClellan had overestimated his enemy. During his Peninsula Campaign, he regularly reported to Washington that he faced an army of 200,000 Confederates (the actual number was 85,000). Such tendencies grated the nerves of Abraham Lincoln, who once remarked, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
Shortly before the Battle of Antietam, the Union general once again dreamed up a superior opponent. Believing the Confederates were three times their actual size, McClellan refused to send reinforcements during several crucial point in the battle. And when the enemy was pinned at the river the following day, he did nothing.
An honest review of McClellan’s failures as General reveals a common problem: He had an extreme fear of sacrifice. Though armed with superior forces, his concerns about losing his men inevitably caused a great deal more to be lost.
Strangely, McClellan’s struggles in this area are not dissimilar to the ones we face on an individual level. To win the battles that emerge in life, we’re often required to harbor an extreme willingness for sacrifice.
This shit goes pretty deep, so bear with me.
You and Your Sub-selves
To understand the necessity of sacrifice, you must first comprehend the nature of your Self. As I’ve mentioned before, this a very tricky endeavor.
One of the reasons this topic is so confusing is that when you talk about yourself, you’re actually referring to a composite of different people. Think about it this way. Are you the same person around your friends as you are your family? What about your girlfriend? Or your co-workers? Or your pastor? Or your dentist?
Chances are, you behave differently depending on your context. So when are “you” the real you?
Much like an army, your identity is actually composed of a number of different actors. If you’ve ever heard of things like an inner Child, an inner Rebel, or an inner Critic, then you have some idea of how this “person-within-a-person” can function.
If you wanna get picky, you could technically divide these “sub-selves” down to infinity. But instead of getting into all of that, the important point here is that the thing you call you is actually a mixture of a bunch of underlying you’s.
Of course, if you’re composed of things that are underlying, there must exist some higher thing from which your selves originate, right? Indeed, there is some consistent, higher thing to which you can attach your identity: The act of observance.
While you may act like a hoodlum around your friends and an angel around your in-laws, you are the only thing that is consistently observing yourself within these contexts. From womb to tomb, a constant Watcher lies inside you, forever looking down upon all of his various offshoots.
It’s not hard to see how this idea can be equated with spirituality. Whether through prayer, meditation or auditing, people have shown a remarkable willingness to separate from themselves and appeal to this higher, observant entity. They rely on Its wisdom to lead them through the battle, and eventually, deliver them from the suffering that stems from the greater war.
To whom else does this logic apply? You guessed it! A general. Much like the head of an army, your Higher Self is responsible for evaluating Its forces and directing them toward victory.
Problem is, some of us have shitty Generals.
The Necessity of Sacrifice
If you’ve ever studied the Bible, you’ve probably heard a disturbing little tale about a dude named Abraham.
As the story goes, God called on Abraham one day and requested a small favor: He wanted him to murder his son. Abraham’s all like “WTF, God?” But God’s like, “do it or you’ll pay.” So Abraham binds his kid and carries him to the top of a mountain. As he’s about to deliver the killing blow, God comes in at the last minute as is like, “Haha, jk bro. It was all a test.”
One might come away from this story thinking God’s a sick bastard. Regardless, the myth of Abraham and Isaac remains poignant because it speaks to one of the harshest truths about being human: We have to kill the things we love.
To flesh out this idea a little further, let’s return to our metaphor of the General.
During the heat of battle, it is often necessary for a general to send some of his men into certain death. While these sacrifices are painful, they’re a necessary step in preventing the future suffering which would follow a defeat.
And so it is with our sub-selves. To ease emotional conflict, one must be willing to sacrifice various facets of her identity depending on the conditions of the battle. What’s more, the refusal to do so will only allow these turmoils to fester.
For example, consider a woman who discovers her husband has been cheating on her. This woman may take great pride in her marriage. She and her husband may have been high school sweethearts, and they may now have two kids and be active figures in their community.
Yet after accidentally opening some risque texts from another chick one day, she will suddenly be faced with a dilemma: Is this betrayal worth killing herself?
Make no mistake. A divorce would be a death sentence. This woman’s role as a wife forms a very significant portion of her identity, and confronting her husband about his misdeeds would require her to put down that thing she has spend so long growing and nurturing.
Yet if she’s not willing to sacrifice this part of herself, she will suffer “God’s” judgement through permanent damage to her self-esteem. And this effect would bleed into all of the other areas of her life. As such, sacrificing her sub-self as a wife is a necessary step to avoid the punishment that would befall her entire army.
In order to make these sacrifices, one must turn to a General who is not afraid of them.
The Power of Vulnerability
After McLellan’s demotion, the Union eventually turned to Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Early in the war, Grant had gained fame for his victory at Fort Donnelson, after which his superiors accused him of “neglect and inefficiency” for attacking without their permission. Meanwhile, Sherman became known for his March to the Sea, which saw his men destroy the homes and supplies of damn near every Confederate City they encountered.
“War is cruelty,” Sherman once remarked, “the crueler it is the sooner it will be over.”
Their willingness to engage in bloody conflicts caused many to refer to Grant and Sherman as “butcher” generals. However, their tactics were effective. A little over a year after the two gained power, the Civil War came to a conclusion.
Easing the conflicts that emerge in our own lives often requires us to act with similar aggression as Grant and Sherman. This practice is what’s called vulnerability, and the attitude can be one of the most empowering qualities a person can have.
When you are vulnerable, you make the conscious choice not to hide your thoughts and feelings. This process can be downright painful, because it requires you to offer up various parts of yourself for slaughter.
For instance, telling your boss that he’s asking too much from you at work could potentially cause you to lose your role as an employee. However, you’ll need to surrender this sub-self if you want to end the suffering that comes with your work-related stress.
Many times, you’ll find this attitude is highly rewarding.
It might be surprising to learn that your boss values your honesty; or that people don’t judge you when you’re new at the gym; or that the world doesn’t end when you ask out that chick you like.
But like McClellan, we often avoid battles that could easily be won out of an irrational fear of sacrifice. And when this response goes unchecked, it will sometimes cause us to twiddle our thumbs while the enemy retreats behind the Potomac.
By fostering a willingness for sacrifice, we are able to step above the confines of our monkey brains and do what makes Him happy.
It’s cruel. It’s weird. It’s nonsensical. But it’s all we’ve got.