We all feel obliged from time to to me. But obligation is not a “thing”. Not like a tree is a thing. Or an arm. So, what is it? If we can answer this question, we may find the key to some kind of personal liberation. And maybe even real happiness.
When I first met my wife 13 years ago, I started to learn French. Following the first childish phase of her pointing at objects and giving me their names, we moved on to basic grammar and sentence structure. Pretty soon, I heard the phrase “Il fait beau” (It’s nice weather today). I was expecting that French speakers would say “C’est beau” (It is nice) but was instead confused by this “il”, which had thus-far been restricted to meaning “he”. I wondered: “Who makes it nice today?” (And suspected the answer might be “God” or “the sun.”)
As my learning went on, I heard more and more of these strange third-person phrases, but didn’t give them much thought until I noticed that my wife would regularly say “Il faut…”
- Il faut qu’on parte
- Il faut manger maintenant
- Il ne faut pas dire ca
In all of these expressions, the meaning is the same: “It must be the case that…” But grammatically, this strange “he” appeared again, as if someone else was obliging her.
Having at first wondered if French speakers were controlled by some invisible third-person, I decided it must be a cultural thing. Maybe they do feel more obliged by something external. But then I realised that although the grammar is not the same, my own language is full of these same obligations:
- I must go now
- I have to eat
- You shouldn’t say that
Whatever the language spoken, my reaction to such phrases varies based on my mood: Sometimes I ask “Says who?” Feeling friendly, I might say : “If you like.” And to expose what I sometimes see as indirect manipulation in these phrases, I might ask “But what do YOU think?”
But whatever I feel about such phrases it is important to restate that obligations don’t exist. Not like trees and arms. The answer to “Says who?” is always “me”. Even when I first think it is someone else. I accept that for my wife (and everyone else) her education, belief system and habits lead her quite naturally to feel that some things simply “are the case”, or that there are some rules to which we must abide. But we always choose to subscribe to these rules (or not), consciously or not.
If I want to be a law-abiding citizen, then I have to follow the rules of the country in which I find myself. If I want to understand people, then I have to listen to them. And so on and so forth… But if I don’t want to, I don’t have to.
So the first question is always therefore: What do I want? And to answer this, I have to know who I am. If I know who I am, where I come from, what works for me, what I like and don’t like etc.. I start to get a better picture of why I say things like “We have to…”, “I have to..” and all these other seeming obligations. I get a better understanding of why I announce these things as if they were true, rather than simply my own opinion.
The more I realise this, the more I can decide: Who do I want to be? Which obligations do I want to subject myself to? Who is responsible for my life and my behaviours? And every time, whatever I decide, I realise it’s just me who decided. And me who obliged myself.
Obligations are not a thing in the world, but a thing in me.