Sainthood, Martyrdom and Gratitude: How Not to Screw Up Being Generous

In keeping with this week’s theme of “give more, get more,” I mentioned in a recent forum post how much I admired the Mother Teresa’s of the world—those super-generous folks who spend their lives thinking only of others.  But there’s another kind of person who spends a lot of time thinking about generosity, too… in an entirely different way.  Some people, in the quest for Sainthood, actually end up being Professional Martyrs.

Know anyone like that?

The Difference Between a Martyr and a Saint:

They both go around finding opportunities to give to others.  But a saint is thinking mainly: how can I help? The martyr is thinking:  How generous will I look?  How much will others admire me for my sacrifice?  How guilty should the recipient feel if he or she does not show sufficient appreciation?

Of course “Saints” and “Martyrs” are crude stereotypes; most of us have both saintly altruistic motives for our generosity, as well as the all-too-human desire for approval and recognition.  And a little self-esteem boost from our own generosity isn’t necessarily a bad thing-- if it motivates us to be more generous!  But it’s when the “giving” ends up being all about the needs of the giver and not the receiver that there starts to be a problem.

Quick Quiz:  Are You a Saint or a Martyr?

1.  If you give an expensive gift to someone that you would absolutely love yourself, but the recipient does not seem thrilled with it, do you:

a.  Realize your error in overgeneralizing from your own desires, and hope the recipient doesn’t feel awkward about it?
b.  Chalk it up as a learning experience, but wish that the recipient had the class to at least fake some gratitude?
c.   Feel totally miffed that the recipient is too dumb to appreciate how wonderful your choice was and punish them for it by pointing out how expensive the gift was and how ungrateful they seem?

2.  You find yourself with $1,000 to give as a donation.  In your most optimistic fantasies:

a.  The gift would make a major difference in some needy person’s life.
b.  The gift would make a major difference in some needy persons’ life and they would be very grateful to you for giving it.
c.  The local paper would catch wind of your generosity and would publish a flattering photo of you handing over the check to whoever the heck the recipient is. 

3.  It is better to give than to…
a.  receive.
b.  be poor and need help yourself.
c.  be unappreciated and ignored, so that’s why you have to give-- to get attention!

Scoring: if you got all A’s—you’re generous!  All B’s—you're honest and pretty normal.  All C’s—whoops!  Probably best not to admit that out loud.

One Martyrdom Remedy: Reverse the Gratitude Equation.

There are many ways to cultivate more compassion for others; this is just one of them.  But often martyrs make the mistake of seeking to maximize the gratitude they receive, rather than the gratitude they feel.

Because the gratitude we receive when we do nice things for other is indeed heart-warming.  But seeking to maximize that, for it’s own sake, can actually lead to a more selfish perspective!  On the other hand, focusing on all the things and people we are grateful for makes us realize how truly fortunate we are.  This can lead to an increased desire to share the wealth, without needing strings attached or boatloads of public approval in exchange for our generosity.

It’s paradoxical, but it works!

How to Cultivate Gratitude?

Well, there are lots of bloggers who have studied this question.  For example, a number of bloggers took part in a recent Gratitude challenge and blogged for weeks at a time about finding new ways to be grateful.

So be sure to check out these great blogs that participated:  Petroville, Xiaolin MamaWorking Moms Against Guilt  and Finding Bonggamom for some awesome inspiration and practical examples. 

Know any martyrs, or ever struggle with the martyhood temptation yourself?


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