Claire Russell is a nice lady who frets about every microjoule of energy she uses. She has internalized the concept of the tragedy of the commons so deeply that she denies herself boiling water for her tea.
Is she admirable or ridiculous? A principled person or a martyr?
Martyrs make us feel bad. Their self-sacrifice implicitly criticizes us, so we tend to deride and isolate them, or worse. We’re flock animals that way, a bit like chickens going after the runt.
At the same time, we admire self-sacrifice if it rises to the level of saintliness, as with a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa. Those instances of transcendent martyrdom are pretty rare. At the sub-celebrity level, I think we tend to regard such people as being holier-than-thou, and resent them.
It’s exceedingly difficult to live outside prevailing social attitudes. Karen Thompson Walker raises this theme in her recent novel, The Age of Miracles. In Walker’s story, the rotation of the earth inexplicably slows, and a minority of people decide to live within the new diurnal rhythm rather than to adhere to the 24-hour clock as the government decrees. I’ve just reached the point in the story where the “real-timers” are beginning to stir resentment and mistrust among the neighbors and authorities. It rings true.
Some martyrs are crackpots. Some, probably most, are inconsistent in ways that could be characterized as hypocritical. But I wonder if, at the core of our reactions, we marginalize them because we often don’t like the message.