I used to listen to talk radio all the time when I was commuting everyday to Los Angeles. My two favorite shows quickly became Dennis Prager and Hugh Hewitt partly because they are thoughtful men with good ideas about politics, but mostly because I appreciated the parts of their shows that did not have to do with politics, but with living and culture. Hugh has movie segments, wine segments, literature segments, and Prager has, among other things, the Happiness Hour on Fridays, which I think is one of the most interesting and meaningful mass media events around.
This morning his show happened to coincide with my (late) drive to work, and he started with the basic idea that taking time on a daily basis to make sure that some of your "happiness" needs are met is essential. His negative example of this was that "martyrs" (and I understood him to mean relational martyrs, rather than people who are willing to die for the sake of faith or ideology) are, inside, angry people. Sooner or later (usually sooner) their apparent martyrdom will explode in selfish rage.
At first this seemed somehow wrong, but Prager is a wise man and so I usually try to hear him out with benefit of the doubt: once again he was right. I think of the times in my own marriage when I have tried to go weeks of "sacrificing in love", giving the appearance of denying my own desires to always take care of those of my wife/family. I would make the bed in the morning, put away everyone's laundry, wash dishes, vacuum spontaneously, etc., etc..
It always became obvious to me after a couple of days or a week that this behavior was actually the most selfish, juvenile way to go about things. For one thing, my wife immediately knows every time that I am not happy doing these things. If I'm stomping through the house collecting laundry, I'm not helping anyone and wouldn't they just rather I let there be too much dirty laundry for today and instead spend (non grumpy) time with them? Secondly, if I did not confront myself before I self-inflicted martyrdom to the point of explosion, the anger would always come out as a "Why aren't YOU doing this sort of sacrifice for ME?!?" My supposed absolute gift of my time and energy was a most selfish act because I was doing it with the (not always conscious) expectation that I receive the same or like treatment. Thats the way marriage is supposed to be, right--total selflessness?
One of Prager's constant points is that taking care to be happy is at root unselfish because it relieves pressure from others, it actually makes them happy (who doesn't become more happy when a genuinely happy (not giggly or silly) person is around), and gives us the reserves to truly sacrifice when that sacrifice is actually and desperately needed. It is worth the strain (I am slowly learning) to say, "Honey, I need to spend an hour reading tonight." "Can we go have a cup of coffee, and just sit and relax and not say anything?" "I need to just get outdoors and play a game really hard for a couple hours." These can all seem selfish if they are done at a time when something of "higher value" is in conflict. There is also the obvious danger of self-indulgence.
But after thinking about this today, I have come to the conclusion (and I have done this before, but not as bluntly) that in marriage and family relationships where we have claims on each others use of time, it is essential to ask "What do you need to do each day (or just today) to be happy?" I think in Christian circles, and especially evangelical ones, there is the idea spread that "Jesus is our happiness or joy." "I am happy each day just knowing that Jesus loves me." This may actually work in practical application for some people, but I have never met them: it may be theologically true, but practically it does not happen just because we say it is so. If it does work for you, please pray for me.
If living a forced martyrdom is then bad, how can we tie the Christian life or repentance and sanctification (all of which the church fathers say is bloodless martyrdom) into the overall picture? Acknowledging that one has needs for happiness is not selfish, but honest and actually humiliating. "I'm sorry, but I just can't be happy for you, despite how much I love you, unless I can have some time for X." It is an acknowledgement of our true state, our actual needs, which is at the heart of spirituality, for true martyrdom comes from acknowledging our state of dependence upon the grace of God, Jesus Christ. Further, as Aristotle would tell us, happiness is not simply a fulfillment of desires. Even as one does that-which-can-make-them-happy, they must intentionally focus on becoming happy during that time, or the result will soon stop being achieved. We are come full circle: the work of being happy is done not because it is the fulfillment of all our desires, but for the sake of those who will be affected by us.