A few years ago, a friend said to me, "You're very driven by duty, aren't you?"
It's true; I do things because I feel I ought to. That sense of obligation extends well beyond my immediate circle and out into the wider community. Fed up wih the government? I ought to do everything I can to change it. And so I've given a good chunk of the last five years of my life to the Labour Party (by the way, have you voted yet?)
A little more recently, another wise friend recommended that I do as she's done, and replace "should" with "could". I have no doubt about the wisdom of this advice, but I've struggled to take it on board. A sense of obligation is so intrinsically woven into my thinking that it's hard to disentangle it. I still try, but even thinking about the question, I catch myself thinking, "I ought to try and do that."
Why should I? Or to put it another way, why did my friend recommend this? Because it would be good for me. Being driven by a sense of duty leads to guilt. I inevitably fail to do all that I feel I ought, and then feel terrible for failing. And the the guilt becomes debilitating, I get depressed, able to do less, and feel even worse. This is not healthy.
It might be better if my duty was more clearly defined. Or defined at all. With only my conscience to guide me, the scope is virtually limitless. It's easy to say, "Just do the best you can. No one can expect more of you than that." but what is the best I can do? That depends almost entirely on how much of my life I give to the issue in hand. What do I give up in order to do my best at this endeavour? What do I sacrifice? My leisure? My income? My marriage? My health? What exactly counts as doing my best?
I've had these thoughts in the back of my mind for the last few years without making much progress. Yesterday evening, whilst half-listening to YouTube's choice of TEDx talks, as I am wont to do, something struck me in the middle of one by Caroline Myss. She describes an exercise she uses in her workshops*:
Come back with one word that you're going to give me, and you will never use it again. Never. And I get to have everything that comes with that word... Think about if you really had to yank a word out of your head, which meant you had to take the whole world that went with that word out of your head.As I listed to this, one word immediately came to mind: "Ought."
What if I gave up that word entirely? Not just the word, but the concept and all concepts closely enough related to be essentially part of the same idea. "Should," for a start, and "duty," and "obligation". What if I simply didn't have that concept available as a reason for doing things? Nor, of course, as a measure by which to judge other people, but for me that's less of a problem than judging myself.
Instead, I'd have to frame my reasons in terms of "want" and "need". I'm not allowed other people needing me to do things, that's still duty. My needs. As a side point, I generally think of needs as conditional, with an "in order to" attached, e.g. "I need to submit my tax return in order to feel secure and not worried that I'm going to get into trouble." This way, they come back to the set of needs that Maslow listed in his hierarchy.
This framing doesn't preclude doing things for other people, but I have to be clear with myself that I'm doing it because I want to, not because I feel I ought to. There's a generosity of spirit in wanting to do things for others that's lacking from the sense of obligation. Christmas presents may be given because that's what you're supposed to do at Christmas, but they lack the warmth of presents given because, "I think you'll like this and I want you to have it".
I'm not ready to commit to giving up "Ought" entirely, but I'll try an experiment: I'll avoid it until the solstice. That gives me six weeks of challenging myself: Why am I doing this? Not because I feel I have to, that's not allowed... Do I really want to?
I'm committing to the experiment here and now. I'll let you know how I get on at midsummer.
*You'll have to listen to the whole section - I've linked directly to it - to get the sense of what she says about the power of words. The rest of the talk is well worth listening to, as well. Return