The Path of the Martyr

By Shae Hadden | Bio

This New Year’s Eve was a refreshing break from the past for me: a friend and I went to a local hall to listen to a concert of Buddhist chants and instrumental music while we walked the indoor labyrinth. The hall was crowded, filled with adults seriously intent on purposeful walking. Two little girls were dancing and skipping the labyrinth together—one following the other. Whenever they encountered an obstacle (that is, an adult moving slowly), they would weave around whoever was in their path. While all the adults were focused on meditating or intensely concentrating on their ‘experience’, these two girls were laughing and smiling, joyously taking whatever life placed in front of them at their pace, slip-sliding in their socks all the way to the centre and back out again.

What struck me was not only that all the adults looked as if they carried the weight of the world on their shoulders, but that they took three times as long to do one circuit. And not one of them was smiling. It made me wonder whether we assume martyrdom is part of ‘being an adult’ in our society. Do we really need to lose our sense of joy in living, our sense of play, by carrying our work, our relationships, and the circumstances we find ourselves in as obligations or burdens?

Oxford defines a martyr as “someone who displays or exaggerates their distress or discomfort to obtain sympathy.” The payoff and the price of being a martyr is the story-telling that happens after the fact—not the actual experience of living. The danger is that being a martyr can easily look and feel as if we are living ‘full out’ when, in actual fact, we are spending more time and energy creating a story and then continually replaying it to get as much attention out of our ‘discomfort’ as possible. This actually limits the amount of time and energy we have available for experiencing new things, including happiness and joy. And being attached to the story blinds us to the fact we’re unable to discern what’s really important from what just seems important when we’re being a martyr.

We can so easily fall in to the trap of taking everything that comes our way as being important, significant and worthy of all our attention. One way to break free from the path of the martyr (aka Superhero Syndrome) is to reorient ourselves in relationship to what appears in our lives. Rather than see ‘what’s new’ as an obligation or burden (something we must or should do), we can look at them as things to play with in the game of life—and we can sort them out as interesting, important, urgent, nice to know and so on. The most powerful context for choosing is who we are and what we’re committed to.

From this perspective, a few things have suddenly become crystal clear to me:

  •  I don’t have to ‘crash and burn’ in order to live a life that is full.
  • Choosing from within the context of who I am and what I’m committed to makes decision-making comparatively straightforward.
  • Being responsible has nothing to do with being a martyr.
  • The Superhero Story will always be present as part of my life, but now I am aware enough to choose between dancing and martyrdom.

I am consciously choosing a way of being that actually validates, honours and respects me as a person. I am choosing to be fully committed…without jeopardizing my health and wellbeing, happiness or fulfillment. And I am

I am declaring that I’m only a human ‘being’…and that I’m choosing to dance with life.