Some time ago a Mormon friend shared something interesting on Facebook, a story that women of her faith were supposed to be contemplating that particular month. Without getting too much into the details of the story, I will say that one very plausible interpretation of this story was that a woman was being praised, at least in part, for suffering in silence and hiding her pain.
This led to a fascinating discussion: why are women of faith so often given the kind of message that implies that it is a virtue, and a particularly feminine one, to suffer silently without asking for help? Better yet, why is it considered brave and noble to push ourselves to the limits of our endurance instead of admitting that we are sick or exhausted or overwhelmed (or whatever the case might be) and that we actually could use a bit of help?
I haven't been able to stop thinking about this, so naturally I'm blogging about it.
Within the Catholic faith tradition we sometimes hear stories of female saints that seem to imply the same sort of thing, the idea that the holy woman who suffers must efface her suffering and present at all times a cheerful, calm demeanor and display a trusting disposition. Granted, many of these stories are merely pious legends, while others are sometimes told with the emphasis in the wrong place--that is, that while it is virtuous for both men and women to practice Christian resignation in the face of trials, there's nothing that says you can't admit you are hurting, ask for help, or request prayers. In fact, the saints did all of those things on a frequent basis.
Yet still the idea persists that a woman is being particularly holy if her sweet smile and cheerful attitude conceal anything from a slight headache to a major illness to an abusive spouse to a disintegrating marriage or even to the kinds of loss and pain we can barely imagine. She is supposed to have a mental drawer full of pious platitudes with which to respond to anyone who expresses concern, ranging from "The Lord will provide," to "So many people in the world are hurting far more than I am, and I am so blessed. Who am I to complain?" She's not supposed to ask for or accept help except in the most dire circumstances, and even then she's supposed to feel guilty because that other woman she's heard of whose house also burned down while she was dealing with a broken leg and nursing twins did just fine without any help at all, even though in addition to these woes the other woman reportedly had a wringer washer and a slowly deteriorating clothesline instead of a nice functional laundry room...
Of course, the reality is that women are people and people sometimes need help. It's not a moral fault or failure of faith to admit that and even to ask for it. Tales that reinforce the idea that a holy woman never admits that she can't just keep on going tend to strengthen the unfortunate tendency women sometimes have to play the martyr on purpose.
Playing the martyr is asking for help without actually asking--at least, not until one has tried everything else. If sighing, eye-rolling, caustic comments about self-folding laundry, lavish and well-decorated pity parties and similar tactics don't do the trick, then the woman can rest assured that her nearest and dearest have totally failed this test of loyalty and actually ask for assistance. This, too, has rules: she can't simply say, "Can someone help me empty the dishwasher?" There has to be a snide comment or two about interrupting someone's busy life, about wishing she, too, had time to plop in front of the TV, or about how sorry she is that she doesn't actually have a second set of hands.
I think many of us women, if we're really being honest with ourselves, will admit to having used these tactics on occasion. But our reasons for doing so are sort of complicated, and what complicates them is this whole "martyr complex" scenario. If a woman gets told again and again that she isn't really holy if she's not willing to do all her chores and tasks and suffer anything and everything in silence, alone, enduring all and complaining about nothing, then she's probably going to feel a bit conflicted when she realizes that she can't simultaneously cook dinner, walk the dog, rock the baby and tend to her own bout with a raging flu virus. Something is going to have to give, and apart from the shreds of her temper the most likely "something" is this illusion she has built up for herself of the holy and gracious woman who hides all her struggles from her husband and children, cheerfully attending to all of their needs, even if she has to fight to remain conscious and vertical.
As tempting as it may be, though, to blame a certain type of man for this problem, the truth is that both men and women share responsibility for the myth of the holy female living martyr. Some men of faith certainly like to tell the story of this or that female relative who never allowed her own mental or physical health to stand in the way of her daily and exhausting routine of worship, chores, and community service because without realizing it they have made an idol of strength, and wish to see this idol's image reflected in any woman who is part of their lives. But some women also make a competition out of endurance and stamina, and will insist until the moment they are forcibly restrained and placed in an ICU (or a padded cell) that they are fine, no, really, and would someone please get that IV out of their arms so they can get on with peeling the potatoes; such women have, sadly, a tendency to judge lesser mortals quite openly if sometimes with the appearance of politeness. (In the American South the phrase "bless her heart" was practically invented as a way of signaling that the woman being spoken about just doesn't have what it takes, for instance.)
Frankly, we who are women of faith need to stop both of these things: we need to stop playing the martyr by never being honest about our struggles or asking openly and directly for help, and we need to stop judging the women who are honest and open enough to admit that they can't do it all. Taking up our crosses, dying to ourselves, and following Christ is the only martyrdom we need, and it doesn't center around some sort of heroic level of physical stamina; it centers around Christ, who gives us the only kind of strength that is really worth having.