The Pleasures of Martyrdom (May 2004)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:16

Saga Magazine
May 2004

The Pleasures of Martyrdom

Dorothy Rowe

Martyrs have been very much in the news. We respond with horror when we learn that yet another suicide bomber has brought death and injury, and we feel great sorrow for the victims. We puzzle over why a young man or woman would willingly relinquish their life and all possibility of future happiness. How could a young woman give up the joy of being close to her children? Yet this was what Reem Riyashi, mother of two small children did.

A clue to the reasons for such actions lay in her statement made in a video just before her death. She said that, as much as she loved her children, she loved Allah more. Such a statement reproves us all. People of superior virtue place greater value on higher things – love of God, love of country, love of their national or religious group – while we poor, misguided creatures place value on family and friends and the simple pleasures of the flesh. The lives of the Christian saints and martyrs record many instances when onlookers to a martyrdom were reproved for their lack of virtue. The fashion for Christian martyrs to be burnt or thrown to lions faded but the motive of martyrdom to demonstrate superior virtue is alive and strong, and present in its purest form in the Domestic Martyr. Not everyone manages to achieve full Domestic Martyrdom but many try.

My sister took to martyrdom when I was born on her sixth birthday, thus robbing her of the status of an only child. Her cries of complaint were well justified because our parents did little to ease her distress, but gradually such complaints became an habitual response to any advantage she saw me as possessing. As time went by her angry tones of, ‘It’s not fair’ melted into the dying fall martyrdom, ‘You have everything and I have nothing but I don’t mind.’ As a child I was intensely annoyed by her claims to martyrdom because I didn’t feel I enjoyed any advantages but as I got older I became intrigued and amused by how she could extract martyrdom from so many ordinary situations. Visiting me in Sheffield she was martyred by learning that my postman arrived at 7.30am while back home in Australia she had to wait until early afternoon for her post.

It would have been cruel to deprive my sister of the pleasure of feeling deprived but virtuous as she endured her martyrdom. Besides, my experiences of her martyrdom and that of my mother who was no slouch in being martyred stood me in good stead with the Domestic Martyrs I met in the course of my work as a psychologist. These were the mothers of many of my depressed clients.

Alas, my sister could never become a fully fledged Domestic Martyr. Her quick and noisy temper put paid to that. Masters of Domestic Martyrdom never fly into a temper. They are always patient and long suffering, but somehow always manage to let their family know just how patient and long suffering they are. They present a model of a virtuous life to which the rest of us can only aspire, or perhaps not, since Domestic Martyrs equate suffering with virtue. Domestic Martyrs are without fail kind and loving, and they always mean well. Meaning well doesn’t necessarily mean that they know what other people need and want, since paying close attention to your suffering and your virtue leaves little time to observe others closely. Nevertheless, Domestic Martyrs always believe that they know their children better than they know themselves. As the child of a Domestic Martyr it’s no use protesting at what a Domestic Martyr does seemingly in your interests because that will only produce the martyred cry, ‘I only want what is best for you.’

I am an expert on Domestic Martyrs because many depressed people have a Domestic Martyr as a parent, usually a mother. Fathers can be Domestic Martyrs but the role is usually taken by women who see Domestic Martyrdom as a way to wield power without appearing to do so. Fathers, defeated in the battle for power, usually opt for the quiet life and deal with all discipline issues with the advice to the children, ‘Don’t upset your mother.’

To be a successful Domestic Martyr you have to bring up your children to be experts in feeling guilty. You must always let them know that their misbehaviour causes you pain. With small children use phrases like, ‘Poor Mummy’ when they fail to eat the food you have so lovingly prepared. Let older children minister to you while the headache brought on by their misbehaviour forces you to rest. If you fail to turn your children into experts in feeling guilty they will not stay around to bear witness to your suffering but instead leave you alone to go about their own sinful pleasures. Once your children are experts in feeling guilty they are able to blame themselves for any disaster that occurs. Chance happenings and the behaviour of other people they always see as being their fault. Thus with this skill they are able turn the natural sadness which follows loss into the prison of depression.

In the attempt not to feel guilty the children of Domestic Martyrs will work endlessly to prevent their Domestic Martyr parent from suffering. However, they can never wrest suffering out of the hands of a determined Domestic Martyr. You may think that you have met all the needs and wishes of your Domestic Martyr but she will still suffer because she is busy worrying herself sick about you. Alas, as much as you try to be what the Domestic Martyr wants you to be, you can never meet her high standards.

Your impossible task leaves you feeling frustrated, angry and despairing. Visits and phone calls to the Domestic Martyr become very hard to make. Meanwhile the Domestic Martyr continues to suffer and feel virtuous, and she also feels very, very lonely.

Dorothy Rowe Depression:The Way Out of Your Prison, third edition, Brunner-Routledge.