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Martyr or hero?

Little boy wearing a superman costume

Growing up, I loved stories about heroes and especially heroines. I readily embraced the idea of taking great personal risk for the good of helping another find freedom from captivity, persecution or insignificance.

Hero: a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

Who am I kidding? I still love these stories. In fact, I think I love them even more today. As I look around and see so much hurt in the world, I can’t help but pray for a hero. Someone save us, please!

Do you remember the 1984 movie Footloose? One of my adolescent favorites! When I think about heroes, I remember the song, “Holding out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. In the movie, this song plays in the background when the hero takes on the local bully.

Truth be told… this little video clip reveals a bit more, perhaps, truth behind the making or becoming of a hero… it a takes a little bit of naivety, a lot of luck and the energy of a community hope or expectation.

Could this be a recipe for a hero? I think it’s the same recipe for a successful service business! Problem is, these ingredients might a bit difficult to harvest. How do we harness the energy of luck?

The culture of hero worship can go too far though… waiting for a hero enables a culture of learned helplessness for the non-hero or in extreme cases the glorification of heroes as martyrs. We don’t have to look far in the news to find examples of both!

Martyr: a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle, service.

Sounds a bit like a hero, huh?!?

Seva (pronounced “say-va”) is a Sanskrit word for service. Seva is the spiritual practice of selfless service and the desire to uplift and assist people, giving help and compassion to others with no thought of what is to gain or what is to be lost by doing so. The practice of seva becomes a path to self-realization, which some define as the essence of yoga. In other words, the service of others is also a way to personal gain. In ancient India seva was believed to help one’s spiritual growth and at the same time contribute to the improvement of a community. Perhaps a hero serves others where as a martyr ultimately serves only themselves. The debate of service as altruism continues.

Traditionally a martyr is understood as a person who is willing to die for their country, religion or beliefs. These days, however, martyr often refers to a person who unnecessarily sacrifices themselves “for others”, while ignoring their own needs or the needs of the greater community. This contortion of intention can show up within a group or even an individual as a martyr complex.

What is a martyr complex? A martyr complex is a destructive pattern of behavior in which a person habitually seeks suffering or persecution as a way to feel “good” about themselves. We all have the capacity to be martyrs, but martyr complex sufferers adopt this as a daily role, often to the detriment of their relationships. To learn more about the martyr complex, identify symptoms and signs visit HERE.

As in all things yoga, we want to find balance, cultivate the ease of extremes, and live according to the middle way. The academic study of Leadership offers another example of finding and practicing the middle way. Truth as understanding is clarified and strengthened by studying and defining extremes and opposites.

Seva relates to my area of “expertise” in business leadership in the philosophy of “Servant Leadership”. Servant Leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader published in 1970, and served as a foundational philosophy for much of my study and learning in Masters and Doctoral school. In his original essay, Greenleaf said: “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. In other words, the process of serving outweighs the pursuit of any other specific end or outcome. Then in service of others, conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. Leadership however depends on the consent of those being served.

The servant leader is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to appease a power drive or to acquire material possessions or personal gain. The leader-first identifies an objective or goal and the acts to achieve that goal even at the expense of others. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types of leadership styles. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The servant-first leader makes sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, although difficult to quantify, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

Inspiration strikes!

What a great question for swadyaya (self-study) reflection… does my life’s work contribute to the growth and improved wellness of others?

For me, this is the most important measure of my life’s work and the daily question that has guided my activities, efforts and interactions since I was introduced to this concept in 1995 (while earning my Masters in Educational Leadership).

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Service as a way of being is meant to enrich the lives of individuals, build better organizations and ultimately create a more just and caring world. I want some of that, please!

Today a client apologetically asked my permission to reduce the frequency of our sessions. For some business owners and private practitioners, this is a cause for fear or panic. After all, yoga therapy appointments are a big part of my income generation strategy and a significant manner in which I contribute to my community. However, not only was I able to appease his concerns by articulating my goal, I also affirmed my own value. I said, “I want you to outgrow the need to receive my work!”

This is my wish for all my clients. I want each of you to grow to be your best self. I hope that you outgrow me, your teacher, your coach, your yoga therapist. I hope the same for myself with my teachers! I can rest in this as a credo because I know there are always more people to teach and to serve each of us! Furthermore, the blessing (and the sadness) of working in the wellness industry is this day and age is that suffering is culturally abundant and consistent. SIGH!

If you could benefit from my service, please ask. Maybe your search for a hero is learning to advocate for your best life and practice intentional self-care. Maria Carey affirms this idea! I need a Hero (The hero is inside!) I call this process of becoming your own hero the awakening of your inner witness. Michael Stone, buddhist and yoga teacher, calls it the Guru Center.