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Swanson: You Don’t Have to be a Martyr to be a Good Person


If you’ve worked in service before I’m sure you’ve had someone instruct you to end your interactions with customers with something like, “You’re welcome,” or “It was my pleasure,” and that saying, “Of course,” or “No problem,” is the absolute wrong thing to say. However, it just seems so natural for us to end with “of course/no problem.” Why is that? Why does it bother older generations so much if we fall back on more casual language? The answer lies in different perspectives of helping people. For older generations, helping other people isn’t something you necessarily have to do. It’s something you sacrificed your time and effort to do, so when gratitude is given it’s expected for the nice gesture to be returned in a similar fashion. It was your pleasure to take time to help them out.

For us, however, helping others is just something we do and don’t really give a second thought about. If your friend needs help with studying, of course you’re going to help them. If you see an older woman drop something and she’s struggling to get it, of course you’re going to help her pick it up. If you’re at work and someone comes to your desk and asks for directions, of course you’re going to point them the right way. Why would these things ever be a problem or something we wouldn’t do? To us, helping people isn’t a conscious decision that we think about — it’s just second nature. This has created a group of very caring and helpful people, but it’s also created a problem of its own. I feel like we care a little too much, and it’s time that we tone that back just a bit.

I have several friends who dedicate obscene portions of their lives to helping the people around them. I’m sure you know a few yourself, or perhaps you’re this kind of person, I know I find myself doing it a lot too. I’ve had friends tell me that they’ve put off studying and sleep to hear a friend vent to them about their day. I’m sure we have all done things that took a great amount of effort or sacrifice to help a friend or other people. When this effort to help people leads you to put their interests ahead of your own and detrimentally affects your life, this crosses the line from being extremely helpful to martyrdom.

For those who don’t know, martyrdom (or to be a martyr) is the act of sacrificing yourself for a cause. It’s usually thought of in terms of death and in big historical contexts like Jesus Christ or Joan of Arc. In this context, martyrdom is seen as one of the most grand acts of nobility. However in social situations, primarily with friends and family, it’s unnecessary. It often makes the people you’re helping feel bad or it will go unnoticed and unappreciated.

Our willingness to sacrifice certain luxuries to become a martyr for our friends stems from this feeling that helping people is no problem. It’s something we want to do, so we’ll go through any lengths to achieve it. Helping people is fine and sacrificing a thing or two is customary for any sustainable relationship, but if a task is too daunting, if it hinders your life too much or if you simply don’t think you can do it and remain healthy or balanced, then just decline it. This doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad friend, and if you explain to the person why you can’t accept this task or responsibility for them, I’m sure they’ll understand (at least they will if they are a good friend who cares about you). If you take on the task and the friend becomes aware of the amount of trouble it put you through, all that accomplishes is making the friend feel awful for having put you through that. If you hide it from them and just let them carry on without knowing, your efforts go unappreciated and the snowball of resentment and feeling like you’re putting more into the friendship than they are begins to roll. Martyrdom is not appreciated in relationships, and it’s time to stop finding ways to justify it.

Sure, I know you want to help your friends and family and will do anything for them. You’d be happy to lose a night of sleep for them, to not study in order to talk with them, to spend money to make sure they’re happy, but this is not what your friends or family want you to do. In the end, you’ll only hurt yourself by doing this. Take the time to reflect on your “no problem” mentality and draw the line at the point where it actually does start to become a problem. Your friends and family care about you, and if you explain to them why something will harm your lifestyle then they should be willing to understand. You can only help your friends as long as you’re in a position to help, and every act of martyrdom brings that down significantly. Friends and family help each other carry the weight, but make sure you only take as much as you can along with whatever you’re already carrying; don’t throw out your back on somebody else’s account.

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About the Contributor
Gavin Swanson, Opinion Writer
Gavin Swanson is an opinion writer.

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