In "By the Waters of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benet, what does John mean when he says, "it is better to lose one's life than one's spirit"?
John says this line as he is looking at the Place of the Gods. He has reached his destination, and he is actually trying to convince himself that he has done good enough. He's trying to convince himself to go home.
Surely, that was enough to do, and live. Surely it was enough to spend the night upon the cliff. . . When the sun rose, I thought, "My journey has been clean. Now I will go home from my journey."
But even as John thinks that he should go home, he knows that he can't. He can't go home, because he knows that he has a deeply felt need to go into the Place of the Gods. He feels called in a spiritual way to go into the Place of the Gods. Unfortunately for John, he believes that he will die when he enters the Place of the Gods. That risk is worth it to John because of the reason he provides in the quote.
If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again. It is better to lose one's life than one's spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.
Essentially, John is saying that he would rather die pursuing his goal than live knowing he didn't even try.
John considers his spirit the essential part of him. It is a combination of his beliefs, values, and conscience. John is saying that it would be better to die than be untrue to your values and act against your beliefs. So, in order to obey what his spirit is telling him, he violates the laws of his people and visits the Place of the Gods. Even though this action is physically dangerous because of the Forest People and the fact that there may be something physically harmful in the place of the Gods, he believes he must obey his spirit which is telling him to go.