The Happy Martyrs

Certain people are constructed so as to derive clear utility from feeling themselves martyrs. This is because self-pity is a pleasure in itself, and a very dangerously addictive one. With greater insight into brain function, we may one day be able to chart how self-pity plugs itself into the reward circuits, allowing us to stimulate our own pleasure centres in the manner envisaged by the SF writers who posited “wireheading”. Perhaps oxytocin in involved, the hormone released in affectionate relationships; except that here we are giving ourselves the comfort we desire from others, in a sort of compassionate self-abuse.

In addition to the neurochemical pleasures of self-pity, playing the martyr brings other benefits: it plugs itself into the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition of considering the victim morally and “spiritually” (whatever that means) superior. In terms of the struggle for undeserved high self-esteem that dominates modern social life, the person who has convinced herself that she is a martyr has won the jackpot; she obtains such immense inner self-satisfaction that many other pleasures can happily be renounced. The original meaning of the word “martyr” having been lost, namely of bearing witness, we are left with the popular meaning, of merely being caused to suffer, as when one is a martyr to one’s rheumatism, or be frustrated in one’s aims by the utility of someone else.

Now, what is the quickest route to suffering and disappointment and thence to this self-canonisation as a holy martyr? Clearly it is to have children, because one is then guaranteed many disappointments and obliged to make many sacrifices. Conventional wisdom seems to be that such martyrdoms come as a surprise to parents, and are tolerated as collateral damage. But since we learn to play Vey ist mir games from our own natal families, of whatever sex and ethnicity, it is in fact most unlikely that the opportunities for pleasurable self-pity and pretensions to spiritual superiority as martyrs to our children are revealed only gradually, after one has chosen to have children for quite different motives. It is a more economical hypothesis that one of the reasons people choose to have children is this very potential for the psychodrama of martyrdom. This may be especially so wherever a person senses that she does not really know how to live, and so will stand in need of scapegoats for all the disappointments and failures she rightly anticipates.

Posted on July 7, 2009 at 22:05 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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  1. Written by James Beck
    on October 25, 2010 at 22:35

    This is excellent, Hugo. The one thing I’d mention is that, as a focus-group religion, the marketed version of Christianity ties into the martyrdom complex rather than the other way around. Happy self-abuse is just one more perk to membership…

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