The word martyr carries very heavy baggage.
Used reverently, it can refer to those innocent lives, like Christ’s, sacrificed for altruistic beliefs. Used in a negative psychological context, it can refer to people who act like victims to avoid responsibility. These days, though, violent extremists have co-opted the word, using it to describe those who kill and die in “holy” warfare.
But words have metaphoric meaning too, and metaphors can apply to spiritual reality, not just physical fact. So let’s explore the idea of metaphoric martyrdom, especially as it relates to our mental freedom from false perceptions and beliefs.
The word martyr stems from Old English, Latin and Greek nouns meaning “witness” or “torture-witness.” But tracing farther back, the word relates to the Greek mermera, meaning “care, trouble,” from mermairein, “anxious or thoughtful.” In turn, these meanings related to the Sanskrit smarati, “to remember,” which gave rise to the Latin memor, “mindful.”
The farther back you go on the etymological tree, the less martyr has to do with pain and torture, and the more it has to do with thought and memory. So perhaps, in order to stop harming ourselves and others, we must also go back to the original roots of the word.
Often, when we use the word “martyr” figuratively, it has a negative connotation. A common example: “She’s such a martyr to her husband.” This signals an unhealthy degree of self-negation and victimhood. But is there a positive dimension to martyring the untrue thoughts and identities we often cling to?
Let’s take an ordinary example: being overly worried about what other people think of us. I don’t know about you, but whenever I send an email or text that requires a bit of mental/emotional investment, I worry about how it will be perceived. Did I say too much? Too little? Was I too distant, effusive, vague, presumptive? As a writer, I know too well how powerful words can be. But this knowledge can paralyze, rather than liberate.
Our doubts about what people may think of us often stem from comparing ourselves to others, or feeling generally inadequate about our appearance or achievements. Freeing oneself from unhealthy comparisons and over-concern for others’ approval can be hard, especially in our age of instant and constant communication and mass media. Such freedom, however, is essential for maintaining a balanced sense of inner calm and well-being.
So how do we break the feedback loop when our own minds turn against us, when we feel beaten up and persecuted on the inside? Instead of clinging to these negative illusions, what can we do?
We can question. We can pray and meditate. We can calm ourselves and ask: What is my core truth? If I am a creation of love and justice, do my inner anxieties and self-criticisms seem loving or just?
If not, we can make a choice. We can chose to cling to the negative, bitter, anguished, at-war self, and continue to feel like a martyr. Or we can recall moments of mercy, grace and kindness. We can remember how very, very hard we try to be good, to be real. If we fail, despite our best efforts, to live up to our impossible expectations, rather than crucifying our true self, we can instead set fire to those destructive, illusory selves:
I beseech Thee… to make of my prayer a fire that will burn away the veils which have shut me out from Thy beauty, and a light that will lead me unto the ocean of Thy Presence. – Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, p. 7.
You may ask: how can we tell the difference between true and false selves? Especially if we’ve had more practice paying heed to the doubting inner voices than to the “angels of our better nature”? Given many people’s early experiences with harsh or painful environments and relationships, we often spend years living under the oppressive rule of self-untruth and self-martyrdom.
The Baha’i teachings tell us that even the worst oppressor has many chances at redemption:
Each person experiences the dawning of a new consciousness differently. For some, it comes suddenly, perhaps catalyzed by a major life event. For many, challenging oppressive inner self-rule takes years of heartbreaking, heart-opening struggle.
As I get older, I have more and more conversations with brave souls who constantly engage in this “truing” of self. Some find support in books, therapy, friendships, or service. Most people committed to this work learn they need quiet, centering time in order to sift through the barrage of mental messages—to find those hidden grains of sweet divinity.
The more we practice this inner reassurance, the lighter and less besieged our bodies and minds become. By realizing that a word like martyr has both negative and positive aspects, we can choose to align ourselves with its constructive energies. In this way, we can heal our tendency as humans to torture ourselves and the people we care about.
True martyrs do not kill others in the name of God. Nor do they berate themselves in the name of “perfection.” Instead, they use the medium of thought and reflection to work through anxieties, whether personal or systemic, like the deep fears that cause racism, xenophobia, and religious hatred. Real, positive martyrs remember and bear witness to our shared humanity.
In a powerful Baha’i tablet written by Baha’u’llah, each sincere suppliant is promised “the reward of a hundred martyrs and a service in both worlds.” I’ve meditated on this line for years and years, wondering how a single person could go through a hundred martyrdoms, and what kind of spiritual “reward” that passage could possibly allude to. Perhaps, going back to metaphoric martyrdom, this promise refers in part to the countless false selves we must pierce before we catch a glimpse of our true inner being. And the reward? Maybe it’s the freedom and grace to become active participants in our human struggle for unity and peace.