The Martyrdom Paradox

You are my hero carved on wood.

It  started with a question. What is a hero really? Perhaps that conversation encouraged Jo Rittey to compose the following blog. In summary, her blog talks about a so-called hero called the Fair Unknown. He’s a nobody who asks a favour, does everything he’s told and in time is rewarded. Jo takes the view that the character and story are made up just to prove a point. And she’s right.

But for me, there’s more to it. I believe that the Fair Unknown or heroes like him do really exist.  Except as Jo rightly points out they’re not real heroes. But he’s not a literary construct made up to prove a point either. Otherwise the story would not have been retold throughout the ages. To me the Fair Unknown is a false hero, the perfect martyr.

His story to me paints the false idea that life is like a morality play or even reality TV!  The false idea is that a surrender of free will receives a glorious  reward. Taken further, the story of the Fair Unknown is an encouragement to people to martyr themselves unnecessarily. My reaction to the story of the Fair Unknown evoked the recollection of a strange and self-unveiling conversation about martyrs and heroes.

It began as a counselling session. It went off track and stayed that way. When I realised what was happening I became annoyed.  To break the tension I made a flippant joke about martyrs. Yet again the session went off track. To my surprise it became an interesting discussion of the definition of a martyr. That discussion created what I called the martyrdom paradox.

The paradox is that martyrs die to attain the impossible expecting an unknown reward.

Of course if the martyrs live they fail. Of course too if they don’t gain the impossible they also fail.

The paradox is that if martyrs gain the impossible and die in the attempt, no-one knows if they’ve succeeded and gained their reward. Effectively they are failed heroes who have sacrificed their free will for no tangible reward. Much like failed rescuers, they don’t save anyone, they don’t receive a reward and they die in the attempt.

So why is the story of the Fair Unknown is so evocative for me? Well that was almost me!

I thought that the story of the Fair Unknown was true. If I was obedient and subservient and sacrificed my free will then I would be rewarded. But in the end, I didn’t save anyone, I didn’t receive a reward and I died (as it were) in the attempt.

Heroes leading heroes
Heroes leading heroes

Conversely, a hero is a differently minted coin. Simply stated, he or she lives an ordinary life, has to leave that life, must face many challenges, goes on a journey, lives or dies in the attempt, saves others and may or may not save himself, but critically exercises free will and is transformed. The transformed hero succeeds with the intent of helping others knowing and willing to pay the cost!

And further his or her story is one that affords others the opportunity to help themselves and be transformed.



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