There are times when two different kinds of life experience synthesize to bring new insight. A friend told me about someone who went very much out of her way to do a kindness. This friend acknowledged the person for it, and the person shrugged it off, saying: “I was capable of doing it, so I had to do it.” The next day I heard someone describe her conversion process saying: “I grew up with the idea that as long as I don’t hurt anyone I can do whatever I want. Although that is still true to a great extent, something about these obligations was compelling for me, as they made me aware that there is something beyond me, that’s much greater than me.”
My purpose in relating these two incidents is not to talk about religion but to talk about how we experience obligation, emotionally and spiritually. When does the sense of being obligated feel good and when does it feel bad?
The statement: “I can, therefore I must” impressed my friend. She expected the other person to feel this was a choice and she didn’t have to do it. Instead her attitude was: If I have been created with this purpose in mind and I’ve been given the means to do it, then how can I not do it?
The juxtaposition of these two people’s experience reminded me of the verse Loving-kindness and truth meet; justice and peace kiss. (Psalms 85 verse 11). Truth and kindness are both “musts.” The only difference is that the religious demand is clear and well-defined. The opportunity to do a kindness or follow the undeniable stirrings of the heart is not so clear and it is something we need to figure out for ourselves. Both stem from the same basic human-Divine relationship of trust and hearing what this situation demands of me.
In both cases, however, we can feel resentful or we can feel inspired. We can feel drained and overwhelmed or we can feel enriched. What determines how we feel about it? How can we feel enriched by the things we’re obligated to do?