Bottom Line Inc

Living Your Life vs. Living Obliged to “Them” 


How much of what you do each day is because you choose to do it? And what things are you doing because you feel obligated to them?

The concept of obligation is one that I have been paying a lot of attention to lately. I am reaching the empty-nester stage and now have the opportunity to create the next stage of my life, and I am continuing to lead a company through a difficult transition in an industry that is under attack.

Sure, we all have things we must do—follow the law, earn money, pay our bills. But, beyond that, how far does the obligation go? What choices do we have within those obligations? Do we have to live in an area that we don’t like? Or work at a job that we don’t enjoy? What is the real obligation to family? What if your family is a “mess” and fraught with problems that put you and/or your children at risk? (No, I’m not talking about my family.)

Living based on what you think you are supposed to do can be emotionally and physically exhausting. No wonder so many Americans complain that they’re tired.

I, like many women, have never been able to easily express what I want…purely, simply, what does Sarah want? Sure, I can order off of a restaurant menu. And I regularly make all sorts of declarations of what I want done at the office, but those actually are things that need to be done for the greater good.

When it comes to my personal desires, I tend to defer to others in my life. Generally, I don’t have a strong opinion about what I want to do. Not that I have been forced into submission—instead, this is the way I seem to be wired. Maybe it’s because I am a middle child who strives to create peace all around. Maybe my parents infused in me a grand sense of community first. Maybe it’s my astrological birth sign—Cancer—with its deeply caring heart. Or, maybe it’s simply that I don’t have a deep preference when it comes to certain activities.

Millennials have been accused of being self-centered. Many of them having absolutely no problem stating what they want with little thought of obligation toward the needs of others. This is basically the antithesis of many of my peers. When I asked my daughter Callie about this, she framed it in a far kinder way. It’s not about being self-centered…it is more about allowing herself to take care of herself, rather than throwing her everything into the outside world.

For her, the big “aha” moment came in college when she had a season-ending injury in field hockey. In spite of throwing her everything into field hockey all through high school and college, her devastating injury caused her to reevaluate her world view. The result: She realized that she needed to create a life outside her love, commitment and obligation to field hockey. It’s not that she became selfish…it’s that she learned to put on her own oxygen mask first and allow herself to have other passions and choices.

Coincidentally, I watched the movie The Queen recently, about the royals’ handling of Princess Diana’s death. I was appalled by the ice in their blood when it came to the handling of a family tragedy. Neither Queen Elizabeth nor her royal counselors wanted to acknowledge Diana’s death publicly in spite of the fact that Diana was the mother of the future king of England and that she had made an enormous mark on assorted humanitarian causes around the globe. The people of England were in deep mourning, and the Queen seemed not to care.

Then I started watching the Netflix series The Crown and got a glimpse of a whole other aspect to Elizabeth—the enormous obligation the Queen and her family are under to country first and personal needs second…and the role tradition plays in that world. Totally acknowledging that this is a Hollywood version of Queen Elizabeth’s rise, the message is powerful and extremely well-played by Claire Foy as Elizabeth struggles with the balance between obligation (remember, her ascension to the thrown was imposed on her by her uncle’s abdication and her father’s early death) and personal preferences. Obligation first…personal choices a distant second.

No pity for the royals, you say? Sure. But millions of normal people face their own version of balancing personal choice and obligation every day. At the simplest level, when I wanted to write this blog, my dog needed some attention so I picked him up. I could have left him on the floor, but he’s so cute and clearly needed a little extra closeness—so the dog won, and it took me longer to get the blog done.

In the end, it’s not about being obliged to “it” or “them”…nor is it about merely putting on your own oxygen mask first for the sake of survival. It’s about finding a way to balance your choices and your obligations, rather than simply being victim to perceived duty.

My younger daughter shared with me a version of the parable about filling a jar with golf balls…then pebbles…then sand…then liquid as a metaphor for the choices we make in our lives. There always is room for more in your life, but you want to focus on the things that mean the most to you. For me, it’s about fulfilling my mission in life rather than the mundane obligations. As long as I am helping others fulfill their dreams and live great, fulfilled lives (which is what I truly love to do), then it has been a good day.

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