Practical lessons from a historical figure who was actually happier the more "under-valued" he felt.
Have you ever held it against someone because they forgot to thank you? I know I have. Honestly, and this is a terrible thing to have to admit, I’ve even mentally critiqued friends in real time as they thank someone else and fail to give me the credit I think I so richly deserve. I wonder — What did he do that I didn’t do? Don’t these people realize how great I am?
It’s only human to want some acknowledgment for the times we selflessly listened to a friend in crisis, made dinner for the family, or drove the car out to pick up a friend who needs a ride. And yet, when I fixate on what I deserve, it takes a joyful occasion and makes it all about me and my cynicism.
The expectation of receiving credit spoils a gift or a favor, because it means there’s a string attached — I will be kind and generous, but only so people provide me with the proper respect and admiration in response. This kind of attitude can poison a relationship. It can also cause major dissatisfaction personally because once we start thinking that way, no amount of praise is too much and the instant someone forgets to feed my ego, it’s a problem. This is a losing game.
We’d all be much happier if we stopped worrying about receiving credit. Easier said than done, though, and there’s a reason that “credit where credit is due” is such a popular saying. One saint, whose feast day was recently celebrated, made a career out of being happy that he never got credit. He found joy in being overlooked, even commenting once that, like a broom, he’d be happy to be quietly useful and then put away for a while.
Born in Lima, Peru, in the early 17th century, St. Martin of Porres lived in the Monastery of Rosa de Santa Maria. He was the illegitimate son of a Spanish settler and an ex-slave, and because of this he was destined to a life of being undervalued. Although a highly trained barber — which at the time was the equivalent of a skilled surgeon — he was only given menial tasks in the monastery. Worse than that, he was barred from becoming a monk because of racial reasons and had to spend his early years in the monastery as a volunteer (eventually he was allowed to take vows but the decision was controversial).
Throughout his entire life, Martin never chafed for more credit and never complained. In fact, he tried more and more to turn away from the spotlight as he grew in maturity. For instance, at times his prayers over sick patients resulted in miraculous healings but he didn’t want to become a famous healer so he pretended that the patients recovered from medical treatment.
So how did he do it? How did Martin learn to find happiness in spite of constantly being under-valued? Here are some of the lessons we can take from his life:
Not receiving credit shouldn’t disturb our inner peace, and stewing over it doesn’t get us anywhere. In fact, the only time Martin was worried was when people were giving him too much credit. He was happier quietly taking care of others and, in a way, being recognized for it spoiled his fun. The less his acts of kindness were noticed, the happier he was. In his book Blessed Martin of Porres, J.C. Kearns writes: “Martin delighted in performing the most menial of tasks. He swept the cloisters and sought out the most neglected places that he might rid them of litter and set things in order.”
Once we stop fretting about whether someone forgot to thank us or values us enough, we will find far more peace. After all, our dignity and value doesn’t come from other people, and our joy comes from a sense of generosity and a life well-lived, not the approval of others.
Preemptively give credit away
When his good efforts were noticed, Martin would become uncomfortable. Kearns writes about a time the bishop came for a visit and began praising him. Martin “broke away as soon as possible from all these little signs of reverence and distinction and ran back to the convent. Quickly grasping a broom, Martin began to sweep with much zest and to clean out the most abandoned spots in the convent.”
In Martin’a case, it wasn’t shyness or low self-esteem that made him act this way; he was so focused on helping other people and took such joy in seeing them happy that, for him, he became less happy if he was being credited for it. For any of us, giving credit away can actually become a more joyful experience than being thanked.
Find the advantages
For Martin, there were advantages to his lowly position. For instance, it allowed him far more freedom to help people who were in a similar position to him. He was a godsend to other people of mixed-race, and the poor of Lima, who were both treated unjustly. If he had been a man of higher esteem, it may have been too much of a bridge to gap to care for these ignored segments of society, but because Martin was willing to tolerate being under-valued in his position at the monastery, he was able to assist them with alms and medical care.
Writer Malcolm Gladwell talks about how difficulties can be turned into an advantage as we creatively work to overcome them. Not receiving the credit that is your due may be one of those disadvantages. The effectiveness of Martin, his happiness, and the way he came to be universally loved by all who knew him, proves the point.