It has taken me a long time to realize how I am prone to make myself into a martyr. This line from a blog post entitled “A Screwtape Letter For the Unappreciated Mom” resonated with me.*
Along those lines, be sure the Mother starts to value productivity above everything else. Have her wake up early and work non-stop until bedtime. If the husband relaxes in the evening with an hour of computer gaming, be sure the wife notices the pile of unfolded laundry or unswept floors. Do not let her grab a book and relax alongside her husband. Diligence, often one of the Enemy’s virtues, when overdone can be used to our advantage as well. Convince her that as long as there is a shred of work to be done (and there always is), no one should be resting. Then, as she folds and sweeps and he sits, you can introduce the sweet bitterness of resentment.*
I love that line: “as long as there is a shred of work to be done (and there always is), no one should be resting.” We often become martyrs because we don’t know how to rest. We think that what we’re doing and that doing it right now is essential.
I first learned this lesson (albeit very, very slowly) as a teacher. I saw a lot of teachers (and almost became one) who do everything– stay up until 2am grading tests so they can give them back the next day, come to school as early as possible and leave last, and utterly exhaust themselves all for “those lazy kids.” The kids are generally unimpressed; they’d rather have a sane, cheerful teacher than a test return of 24 hours. And when I made myself into a martyr, sacrificing sleep, sanity, and health for my students, I started to resent them.
I began to recognize this in other areas of life. When I used TV time to fold laundry while my husband just watched, I always felt superior. But is it really so superior to multitask? What’s wrong with just watching TV?
The online dictionary defines martyr as, “a person who is killed or who suffers greatly for a religion, cause, etc.” However, my cause is usually something along the lines of, “The Faultless Teacher who Does Everything, Leaving Students with No Excuse” or “The Wife and Mother Who Is So Loving That She Never Rests.”
My “causes” are tied to two things: First, I make myself a martyr to justify myself–to feel better about the choices I make, especially when I am in a busy season and trying to do too much. In reality, working all the time is often less about sacrifice and more about a lack of honesty about what I could accomplish and a failure to prioritize tasks appropriately.
More than self-justification, my causes are tied to what others will think. I assumed the parents of my students would be more impressed if I graded things ridiculously quickly. I assumed the students would learn better if I create a complex, engaging PowerPoint for each lesson (even if it meant skipping their basketball games). I assumed that the administration, parents, and students would recognize my efforts and my sacrifices and thus be pleased with me. But everyone was working hard, and no one was impressed (in fact, the students and parents responded much better when I went to those basketball games!). My attitude of sacrifice doesn’t get the support I need. It doesn’t help things get done. It doesn’t change anything for the better.
So if I want to fold laundry while we watch TV, I will. And if I would rather sit and watch (the TV, not the laundry), that’s fine, too. I will choose not to see myself as a martyr and not to expect others to make the same choices that I do.
The old adage “no one likes a martyr,” is true in this sense. The cause I’m sacrificing for, no matter how it looks on the surface, is really just selfishness and pride at the core. There are real causes worth the sacrifice, and I don’t want to waste time on my made up ones.
*In this blog post, the author plays off of The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters is a book by C.S. Lewis in which an older devil is giving advice to his younger nephew who is trying to capture a soul–one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read. The Enemy refers to God in this case.