The most common thing in the world is to hear someone complain about their job, their church, their school, or their neighborhood. It’s almost a form of casual conversation. In many cases people don’t actually dislike these things, but they just enjoy ripping on them for fun. In many cases though there is a deep and genuine frustration, boredom, annoyance, anger, or pain. Why don’t people leave? Why not exit the situation for a better one? It turns out this is one of the most difficult things to do.
I don’t think the primary difficulty in exiting a soul-sucking situation is for fear of the unknown. In many cases even the unknown would be better than the known frustration. I don’t think it’s primarily because society places a (too) high level of respect on loyalty. I don’t think it’s primarily because of the illusion that we can “change it from the inside” or play the role of reformer. I think these are rationalizations people give for why they stay. There is a more fundamental reason people stay in bad situations. Staying means you get to play the role of two cheap, easy archetypes with quick rewards: the critic and the martyr.
It’s incredibly easy to be a critic. Hardly any effort is required to sit at the back of the room, arms crossed, and look indifferent while making an occasional sarcastic comment to the person next to you. Critics get friends. They get quick points and rally a small band around them in every setting. Every company has the critic and his cadre of cronies who circle around to hear his latest jab. Every church has the member who has meetings and conversations to discuss their concerns and troubles. Critics enjoy a weak form of respect and they are never alone. Even in a happy crowd as soon as one critic peels off and stands apart, too good for the activity, he attracts others who don’t want to be duped or fooled.
Being too cool is easy. Actually making good on your critiques and leaving that which you claim to be above is hard. The role of critic is not a bad one, but it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it’s so easy. The way caffeine is easier than getting more sleep. Both have valuable and enjoyable uses in the short run or in certain situations as a kind of jolt into reality. But in both cases the long run effect is incredibly deleterious to your health. If you only ever play the role of the critic you lose the capacity to exit or create. You are no longer the one in control of your life. You are a victim of and a slave to that which you critique. You need it because without it you have nothing.
It’s a little harder to be a martyr, but not much. To play the martyr is to stay in a painful situation, which may sound hard but is much easier than doing things you love. Unpleasant things naturally find their way to you upon waking in the morning. Most disciplines are unpleasant at the outset. Most jobs are. Most new people are a lot of work to befriend at first. The easy route is to give just enough of an effort to stay in a situation, but never fully engage and never simply exit. Complaining about your boss or professor and how mind-numbing your day was is an easy way to get the attention of others. If the critic gets cheap popularity, the martyr gets cheap sympathy. Everyone feels bad for the sufferer. When you feed off of that sympathy and choose it over the much more challenging work of finding situations that don’t make you suffer, you seek the same caffeine-like quick fix as the critic, and with equal danger.
I’ll use an example I’m very familiar with. I’ve met many young people who hate college. They’re bored, the classes are useless, the tuition is costly, the experience as a whole makes them feel dull and depressed if not openly angry. Calculated as a purely economic decision it makes no sense for them to stay. Four years, tens of thousands of dollars, and a very weak network and set of skills and knowledge gained at the end. They can think of myriad ways to get more with less. But that’s not the only cost. To exit means to quit playing the role of critic and martyr. Those come with a lot of easy points.
Worse still, once you exit you forgo the chance to play those roles again. When you complain about your job or rip on your boss you won’t get laughs or sympathy. You’ll get condemnation. “Well it’s your own fault. I told you not to drop out of school!” It’s the same with churches, cities, and any other situation you can exit. Exit means giving up the cheap benefits of the critic and the martyr and adding the cost of social approbation.
It’s easy to see why so many people stay in crappy situations they clearly hate. It’s easier. No one gets mad at you for staying. You get cheap popularity and/or sympathy. You are not accountable for your feelings. It’s always the fault of the bad situation you’re in. This is one of the most tragic traps a human can trip.
The power of exit is at the core of human freedom. It is the first step on the road to genuine fulfillment and self-actualization. Once you embrace it – and the only way to embrace it is to exercise it – you begin to find, paradoxically, that it needn’t be used as often as you thought. Sometimes just knowing that you are in a situation by choice and could leave at any time is enough to re-orient your outlook to a more productive, positive one.
If you want to live a great life you have to create it. Creating is learned. It’s not free. To become a creator you have to first let go of the critic and the martyr. Yes, critique can be the eye-opener that leads to exit and creativity. Yes, martyrdom can bring the pain that leads to the same. It’s not that you’ll never play those roles, it’s just that you can’t live in them.
If you want to create a good life you have to first exit the bad one. Exit alone is not sufficient. Indeed some people get addicted to exit much the same way they can to critic or martyr. Always leaving what’s not working but never building what will. Still, exit is indispensable and far more powerful than attempts at reforming bad situations. Reform is fundamentally submissive and reactive while exit is empowering and leads to the creative and proactive.
The martyr, the critic, and the coward belong together. Leave them behind.