In the midst of the break up of my marriage came a stunning realization: We were both broke and would have to continue to live together until our lease was up because neither of us could afford to break the lease or move out early. That meant two full months of continued co-habitation even though our relationship was over.
Those two months were pretty hellish, not gonna lie. Not only did we have to see each other pretty much every day, but we also were beginning the process of separating all of our stuff: cds and dvds, souvenirs we had purchased on trips, household items. Who got to keep what was a pretty constant question.
My ex had come into the relationship with a cat and we had gotten a cat together. Winifred, but we called her Fred for short. Fred was a love and when she was super small she would sit on my chest while I read for hours. She was a snuggle bug and I loved her so much. But I felt guilty because the cats loved being together and I couldn’t imagine splitting them up. My ex said that I could keep Fred but in a fit of stubbornness I said no. The cats needed to stay together. It was important.
As the summer wore on and we got further and further apart I started to regret my decision. I really loved Fred. She and I were bonded. I didn’t want to leave her. But I resisted changing my mind. There were a lot of other circumstances like this over that long summer. I spent my free time making copies of all of the cds so that we could each take a set. I made sure that as we split all of the household items she would have what she needed to set up a new place, even if that meant sending some stuff with her that we had purchased together. Over and over I tried to do whatever I could to make this fair for both of us.
Finally one day I realized that I just couldn’t leave Fred behind and so I told my ex that Fred was coming with me. And she did.
And I think Fred and I saved each other over and over again in the many years to come. She and I took care of each other and loved each other. We created safety for each other. And in the years after the break up of my marriage, when I felt lost and desperately alone as I tried to navigate a new city and a new life, Fred was home for me. We would snuggle and watch movies. She would sleep on my lap as I read. She would stretch out beside me in bed and stay there all night. And I almost missed out on that life with her because I was trying to be some kind of martyr.
How often have I done that throughout my life? Done something that I knew wasn’t good for me because I was trying to make it easier for someone else? Or because I was trying to punish myself by making things harder than they needed to be?
I’m not talking about moments where you are legitimately looking out for the good of someone else even if it costs you something; I’m talking about all of the ways you make yourself suffer when there is no good reason not to.
I think, for those of us who were raised in evangelicalism, this martyrdom is ingrained. “Take up your cross.” “Jesus, Others, You.” This idea that we had to suffer all of the time to make God love us more. But instead of taking it in the way it was intended: work for justice, look out for the marginalized; we instead just take it that we should be miserable all of the time.
Stop being a martyr. It doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t make the world a better place. It doesn’t lead toward peace or wholeness or equity. It just makes you miserable.
Being a martyr looks different for different people. It can mean staying in a toxic relationship because you know it will hurt the other person if you leave. It can look like staying in an unaffirming church to “work for change”. It can look like constantly letting your friends or partner make all of the decisions about what movies you watch and where you are going to eat. You do all of the heavy emotional lifting in your relationship. You avoid topics that will make your parents upset. The list goes on and on and on.
You chalk it up to being selfless. You chalk it up to being a good friend. But even as you put yourself to the side over and over again you can feel the bitterness start creeping in. You feel like you never get your needs met. That no one ever looks out for you.
But the truth is your not looking out for yourself. You’re too busy suffering for no good reason.
Being miserable doesn’t make you a more noble person. It doesn’t make you a better friend. Stop being a martyr. Learn how to set boundaries. Learn to articulate what you need. Learn to compromise in such a way that you get your own needs met as well.
I am so grateful that I decided to look out for my own needs and take Fred with me. She adjusted just fine to being an only kitty for a while and then adjusted again when Berrigan came home to live with us. When I think about what I would have missed out on if I hadn’t brought her with me…
It doesn’t do any good to suffer for suffering’s sake. There is enough sadness and trauma in the world that we don’t need to create more. You are a better partner/friend/child when you are living your best life. When you are being true to yourself, being healthy, setting good boundaries, making sure that you have what you need.
The world doesn’t need more self-made martyrs. It needs healthy and whole people working together.