The Only Real Obligation in Life

For years and years, we grow accustomed to a certain type of relationship with our parents. They give, and we receive. They give us their time, money, advice--themselves, really--and we take it all. That's the parent-child relational dynamic established from infancy on. It continues that way for a while.

Then at some point, it all begins to shift a bit.

Last week, I found myself giving advice to my dad. It's not the first time this has happened, but these moments always stand out to me. We were on the phone, and he told me about his latest dilemma. He's retired and more recently has been helping out with the Honor Guard for the Army. When someone from the military dies, they can request the Honor Guard to be present at the funeral. Because of the nature of funerals, he's on call--he might work only one service a week, but there are times he might work multiple services a day. Lately, he'd worked more way more than he would prefer, and the demands of the job had him stretched to his limit. He was worn out. I could hear the weight of it in his voice. Heavy. Weary.

"I'm thinking about letting them know I can't do it anymore," he told me. "But I feel bad. They really need me." He let out a sigh through his nose. It crackled in the speaker of my phone. I could feel the father-son relational scale tip to my side.

"Dad," I said. "You shouldn't feel bad about it. Especially at this point in your life. You don't have to be a slave to obligation."

At 71 years old, it's true--my dad shouldn't do anything he doesn't feel passionate about doing. He's put in a whole lifetime of service in the military, and then at a job in the Federal Reserve Bank which I watched drain his energy day after day. In fact, my dad's the one who inspired me never to pursue a job I didn't love, one that didn't give me life instead of taking it from me. Now that he's retired, it's crazy to me that he'd spend another second of his life doing something he felt obligated to do.

"Yeah, I know," he said. The words came slow and conflicted. But he does know. I know he knows. In that moment, I could hear the battle taking place in his mind--the desire to fill a need and to avoid letting people down was clashing and clanging swords with his desire to live life the way he wants to live it. And I don't know about you, but that battle is a familiar one. It's fought inside my head, too.

It's the battle of desires.

The struggle between obligation and calling.

The conflict between what you feel like you should do and what you feel like you must do.

Elle Luna wrote a fantastic piece about should vs. must. She puts it like this:

Should is how others want us to show up in the world — how we’re supposed to think, what we ought to say, what we should or shouldn’t do.
Must is...our instincts, our cravings and longings, the things and places and ideas we burn for, the intuition that swells up from somewhere deep inside of us. 

Here's what I've learned about being in the should realm: it's all about other people and what they might think. It's about their expectations of you or your assumption of their expectations. It's being afraid to let them down or disappoint them in some way. It's feeling obligated to be an engineer because your parents paid for your college tuition, so becoming a writer feels way below the standard of a respectable career choice. It's your struggle to say "no" to anyone, so you say "yes" because yes means you're good and helpful and no means you're selfish and unkind. It's your desire to maintain the image that you can do and handle everything.

And so you try

To do.

And handle.


Meanwhile, somewhere underneath the pile of should do's you've accumulated and occupied yourself with, there's a must do.

It might be as tiny as a grain of sand, a needle waiting to be discovered in the stack of your obligations. It might be something you already know about, something you had picked up and begun to build but left to rust while you distracted yourself with everything everyone else asked you to do.

I've been there. In some ways, I'm there now. I had a mini crisis a week ago. I was back home from a two-week trip in Europe and because I'm a teacher, and this is the summer, I don't have a nine-to-five kind of obligation during the week. Awesome, right? I had all of these lofty plans to write, to work on this website, to create, to address the ideas begging for my attention and energy and time.

That was a Sunday. By Tuesday, my schedule for the entire week was suddenly crammed full of other work. This other work wasn't bad work--it was simply the result of me saying "yes" to every single person who asked for my help or time. Because I felt like I should. Because it feels nice when people think I'm helpful and useful and needed. 

By the end of last week, I got everyone else's work done but my own.

With all due to respect to everyone in my life, your to-do lists and expectations aren't as important as my work. And my work isn't as important to you and your life as your work. The takeaway isn't that we should never help each other; we should. Dear God--have you ever tried to move all of your belongings on your own? It sucks. We need each other. We do.

The takeaway is this: we need to do the work to better filter what we say yes to. As my friend Kent says, when you say yes to something, you say no to something else. I want to make sure more and more that I'm saying yes to the best things. Because the good and the okay and the meh things will always do their best to creep in on our agendas and push out the best things.

And what's best for my life and consequently for everyone around me is the work for which I was put on this earth to do. The work that leverages my strengths, my passion, my resources, and even my heartbreak and pain. In the past few years, I've become painfully aware of how short life is and how little time we have. It's been the death of people close to me. It's been seeing my dad realize how quickly he's reached seven decades. It's all been branding a message into me, searing the letters deeper and deeper until I get it:

Life is too short for obligation. So live the one you must live.

Live the life that loves deeply.

Live the life best leveraged by your strengths.

Live the life that mends the broken hearts which break yours.

Live the life that compels you out of your bed in the morning.

Live the life that is you, not someone else's expectation of you.

Live that life. It's the only real obligation you have.