I’ve been reading about the brave hearts who stayed behind at Fukushima Daiichi—the nuclear power plant fatally crippled during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan—knowing they are likely killing themselves, staying anyway to protect their families and their community. Their example is humbling and ennobling at the same time. I wonder how well I would hold up under such pressure. Would I have the courage and self-control to stay, comforted only by the faith that my sacrifice was for the greater good? It’s nice to think so, but....
The heroic act, the martyr’s death: What 11-year-old did not contemplate the doing of noble deeds or long for a memorable end? Reading of the many torments of one of the North American Jesuit martyrs, St. Isaac Jogues, did I not, fleetingly at least, wonder in what blaze of pious glory my light would likewise be extinguished?
There is enough of the childlike idealist left in me sometimes to wonder what my grand gesture might be, what sacrifice I will make to better the world or leave a lasting testimony to faith. I haven’t followed Isaac Jogues up the Hudson except on the Metro North, nor followed Albert Schweitzer into Africa. I have not pitched myself into the life of a Catholic Worker House. In short, I’ve come up pretty short in the suffering and sacrifice department. Too cowardly to follow Jogues into the red martyrdom, too co-opted for the white martyrdom of self-denial and service to others, too lazy for the green martyrdom of prayer and mortification behind monastery stones: What’s left for a middle-class schmoe in the suburbs? Is there such a thing as a gray-flannel martyrdom?
Pulling out of a country club parking lot where my firstborn is taking swimming lessons, I note its impressive array of glinting, late-model luxury cars awaiting their tennis-bag-toting owners. I climb into the unwashed family Odyssey, the poor thing itself dying the coward’s thousand deaths of bumper and fender dinks and scratches, and wonder about the journey I am on. “Nice little sports car,” I mutter as I follow a shiny Audi out of the lot.
“What’s a sports car?” number one son asks.
“It’s a small car that young men or old men like to buy,” I tell him. “They go very fast. I used to think I might own one someday.”
El Primero surveys the Audi. He’s incredulous. “You couldn’t get more than four people in that,” he says. “Papa, you need a car for six.”
“I’m aware of that,” I say. “Don’t worry; I won’t be getting a sports car.” Then, muttering in most unmanly fashion, I add, “I guess I missed my chance.”
He’s silent a moment, digesting that last juvenile morsel of regret. “If you had no family, you could get one,” he finally says. “If you were still single.” I’m jolted. Have I been talking in my sleep?
“You could get one if you had just one kid,” he adds, “even two.”
“But I’ve got four,” I say, turning the Odyssey slowly (the only way it knows how) out of the lot.
“You’ve got four,” he agrees.
“I’d rather have my four kids than a sports car any day,” I tell him, hoping he will feel the same way himself some day. “Four kids is much more fun.”
This is not to compare myself to Isaac Jogues or the heroic workers of Fukushima or real martyrs anywhere. I am not so deluded as to believe that passing up a sports car should earn me any hosannas. Let’s just call this a small reminder that he and she also serve and sacrifice, if gladly, who only clean up after the sick, get the kids fed and to bed and chauffeur the swimming lesson.
It is a kind of martyrdom that is not especially heroic or colorful, but it’s roomy and gets great gas mileage.