The history of the word ‘martyr’ was applied to those who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for their beliefs. The word ‘martyr’ comes from the Greek for “witness” and was applied to the apostles who were witness to Christ’s life and resurrection. By the second century it evolved from being used to describe those who were put on trial for admittedly being Christians even though it would mean their deaths and grew to include any person who suffered execution for their religious beliefs (not just Christians). Martyrs were people who believed in an afterlife and salvation so glorious that the reward of heaven was more important than mere mortal life on earth.
Nonetheless, it was understood that the deliberate courting of death was clearly sinful. The worthy would be gifted martyrdom by God. To try and achieve martyrdom by one’s own efforts was an act of defiance. However, there were those who did not merely volunteer for martyrdom, they chose to provoke it. They smashed idols, disrupted pagan rituals and assaulted temple priests knowing they would die in the ensuing violence. The ideology of martyrdom had shifted subtly – for some, martyrs did not simply die for God, now they killed and terrorized in His name.
In some religions, suicide bombers are considered martyrs, despite an old-time law which decreed that those who killed in retaliation were to be denied the name of martyr.
But, as my title notes, martyrdom is alive and well in our modern times. The word’s meaning has grown to represent not only those who are willing to die for their beliefs, but those who are willing to suffer for them. It also no longer applies just to religious beliefs.
In this writer’s opinion, a modern-day martyr is one who feeds one’s insecurities by, in a way, over-giving. There is something to be said about the power that comes from the “Woe is me!” or “Alas!” – picture one with head thrown back and arm resting upon forehead as a visual of a long-suffering martyr who has given beyond his/her well-being – financially, physically, emotionally and/or spiritually. Understand that inside the mind of this martyr, there is internal recognition that whatever has been given has been a self-sacrifice. No matter the cost, it allows self-recognition of how truly caring that person is to give so much to another, with no thought of self. What few modern-day martyrs realize is that giving with no thought of self is a selfish act, because it allows them to – at least temporarily – assuage their feelings of little self-worth. And along the way, there is, perhaps, the possibility of recognition.
A commonplace idea of a martyr occurs in the work place. How many of us, at least once in our lives, went beyond what was comfortable doing “for the good of the company”? It might be as small as taking on a co-workers assigned tasks as well as your own when that co-worker is out sick for several days. It might be putting in extra hours without compensation to help the company complete a deadline. It might be doing some personal work for a supervisor/boss that means you’ll have to work harder to finish your own business work. Why do we do it? The simple answer is because we want to prove that we are a team player. The more complex answer is that we are hoping for some kind of recognition for the extra we’ve taken on. Few realize that the more you are willing to take on, the more you’ll be given to take on. And a martyr continues to do more and more, waiting and hoping that it’s the next added task he/she takes on which will be the one that will finally produce that much-desired recognition.
I believe that this is one of the things that contributes to burn-out. You give more and more of yourself “for the good of the company” (or so you believe) and you find yourself suddenly cringing at the thought of going back to work each day, each week, subconsciously denying that something won’t change. My friend, wake up! The company is only interested in its bottom line! The stockholders aren’t interested in the individuals making them money, only in how much money those individuals are making them!
While the career martyr is one of the most common, there are other types as well. Sometimes we go out of our way for others to show them how ‘wonderful’ we are. Again, our insecurities are in force. A martyr often doesn’t believe that they are worthy to have people like them for exactly who they are, so they add little gifts along the way to assure themselves that others will see them as worthwhile having in their lives. Again, it might be as simple as a silly greeting card sent in the mail (“Don’t forget I’m here!”) to making meals for them (“Don’t forget you like my cooking!”) It might be a little trinket of appreciation in some form just because (“See, I’m always thinking of you!”). There is a subconscious need to remind these people to whom we want to feel important that we have gifts for them if they just keep us in their lives. Only when a martyr is able to recognize and believe that he/she has value as a person will they be able to break the cycle of martyrdom.
The cycle is difficult to break. It is also an ongoing process. The ‘giving’ portion of martyrdom becomes ingrained as though it is as natural as breathing. It is only when one chooses to give conscious thought to all of the things they do for others that are gifted for self-ego can they begin to recover.
Readers, I share this information with you not from research, but from personal experience. I’ve been doing these things in different ways for over 40 years. I’ve only recently become cognizant that I “move on” or “move away” from relationships when it becomes clear that I will never be able to give enough – or do enough – to get the acknowledgement my subconscious needs in order to feel worthwhile. The recognition of this trait is not a pleasant experience and processing it in the past days has left me feeling a little lack-luster. I’ve written – and re-written and re-written again – this paragraph of ownership, trying to salvage a little of my pride while being vulnerable about it. My saving grace is that my instinct tell me I’m not the only modern-day martyr existing in this world. And since I remind my bestie (who holds her emotions inside with a vice-like grip) to put it out in the universe and let it exist, then I feel compelled to do the same with this….
4 thoughts on “Martyrdom is alive and well…”
Poignant, vulnerable, compelling, and honest! Thanks for sharing!
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I understand where you are coming from, but to assume the role of devil’s advocate here, I must ask is it simply that we’ve been made to feel that we are in the wrong because we enjoy doing things for other people. I’m not referring to the workplace here. That’s an entirely different calling. Could it be that we’ve been encouraged to believe that we’re selfish for “doing” for others by those that don’t want to or simply cannot find value in supporting our fellow man whether emotionally or physically?
In any case, thank you having the courage to broach the subject.
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Your concept has a valid point. I’ve only just discovered that as much as I enjoy “giving”, I do it at times with a motive that is beyond the pure joy of giving to include a deeper validation need. I need to learn to distinguish between what feels like joy and what feels like wanting validation.
I’m sure I do the same without realizing it.