My resolution for 2012 was to ‘do what I want’. But I should explain what I mean.
Over that Christmas, I spent a lot of time talking to my mom about why I felt so guilty and frustrated about every decision I made. I felt crushed under too much obligation, and a continual sense of failure, but externally I couldn’t see that I had an overwhelming number of obvious obligations in my life. There were just a few big, obvious ones:
- PhD thesis and teaching
These are the things of a full life, but not (I thought) an unbearable one. So why did I always feel that I was letting myself or someone else down by failing to fulfil all my obligations?
Talking to my mom over Christmas, I realised that the problem was not an excess of real obligations, but rather an overactive sense of obligation about everything I did. Almost every small decision, like about whether to go to a friend’s birthday party, whether to rest or do some work, or whether to go shopping now or another day, seemed like it had huge moral import. I’d have a mental dialogue about what to do that just left me more confused, because every ‘voice’ in my head pulled me in a different direction. I attached important values to small decisions and then drew huge conclusions about myself from the decisions I made.
- Should I go to my friend’s birthday party, even though I was tired? It would make me a bad friend not to go. But if I did go out, feeling so under the weather, I might end up getting sick and it would be my own fault.
- Should I buy new shoes? I’d be a spendthrift if I did, a really ungrateful person.
- Should I go shopping for food tonight or put it off? I’d be so lazy if I didn’t go; it would prove I was a weak person who let tiredness rule my routine.
- Should I spend an afternoon with my boyfriend or try to socialise with other people? It seemed selfish just to relax with my boyfriend. Or was it in fact selfish to deny him the one-on-one time? Either choice seemed selfish in some way.
These kinds of decisions tortured me, because I felt backed into a corner, forced to make a decision but also nearly guaranteed to make a ‘bad’ one. It took some reflection to realise that these choices aren’t ones of deep moral import. They’re matters for evaluation, certainly, but none of the options represents an absolute obligation.
Not only did my attitude represent a misunderstanding of real obligation, my constant, minute self-criticism about everyday decisions didn’t attach much value to God’s grace. This brings me to one question I’ve been pondering, which is why some Christians (like myself) who believe in justification by faith can suffer so much sense of guilt and failure. Part of it is surely the way in which we all desire to ‘please’, whether it’s other people or our own sense of accomplishment. But I think evangelicals can sometimes promulgate our own discourse of guilt-infliction by the emphasis we often place on ‘seizing the moment’ or ‘following the promptings of the Holy Spirit’, or conversion narratives which turn on a single, decisive moment. This way of thinking is certainly justified if rightly understood, but injudiciously taken it can transform into a constant sense of being always at a turning point, of every choice having eternal ramifications. To someone already disposed to be self-critical about decisions, a Christian lingo that endows choices with eternal import can be twisted into confirmation that your own anxiety and sense of failure are in fact a reality.
My resolve for 2012 was to ‘do what I want’ in these matters which aren’t clearly moral or momentous, to shed the weight of false obligation and unnecessary guilt. I can’t say I always succeeded, but in the moments when I did manage to silence the ‘voice’ of false obligation, it became much easier to evaluate decisions wisely and clearly because I felt genuinely free to choose either path. I was able to recognise more clearly which obligations were real, for example the issues on which there is clear Biblical guidance or the commitments which had a genuine claim on my time. I also paid more attention to my deep intuitions about some things, instead of getting mired in internal, self-critical debates.
My first intuitive act of 2012 was to initiate a conversation with my boyfriend about whether our relationship was heading towards marriage. I felt this was the next step for us, but had hesitated to raise the subject because I felt guilty about initiating, guilty about moving ‘too fast’, in fact guilty about having a boyfriend at all. (Maybe those are different blog posts.) Finally I silenced these voices of false obligation and asked my boyfriend what he thought of ‘us’. We still remember the conversation we had on that cold, bright January day as one that imparted clarity for both of us. We got married just less than a year later.
This, I think, is the best example of how freedom from false obligation can enable decisions that are made with clarity, confidence, and delight. I’d like more of my decisions to be made that way.