I was writing, or attempting to write in my favorite coffee shop, when I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two women, one complaining vigorously about going home for Thanksgiving.
“And my mother, G-d rest her soul, still smokes even though she hacks away, and the whole house smells like smoke . . . My brother will be there, sulking about, not helping anyone, because he is 31 and hates living at home but isn’t able to leave. Then Aunt Joan serves that awful cranberry sauce from a can and the Turkey — I don’t know if you can even call it that — is just dry, shredded white stuff . . . Plane tickets to Pittsburgh, of all places, is not where I had intended to spend our miles.”
“It sounds awful,” the friend commiserated.
I waited. And then she took the bait. The friend asked, “Do you have to go?”
“No, but . . .” and Woman #1 rattled off the list of reasons why she felt she had to: “My mom will be so pissed if I don’t that it’s not worth it. My brother wouldn’t care, but I want them to see the kids, even though the kids don’t seem to care about who they see that much.”
I could almost see her stomach churning with guilt. She was not in touch with the love driving her decision. She was suffering from what I call obligation sickness.
In 2001 I had a bad case.
A recent trip to California for a large family gathering had exhausted me financially, spiritually and emotionally. I felt very obligated to go, and conflicted that I didn’t go from my heart. This inner conflict brought many questions: What is the value of doing something that you don’t want to do? Do you have to spend time with your family if you don’t really feel related to them? Why should I do what is expected of me because society promotes families values? This was the nature of the struggle. Perhaps some of you can relate.
Then September 11 happened and everything changed. The only place I wanted to go in the heart of the New York City chaos that day was my parent’s home. It wasn’t because they lived in a relatively safe area of the city, or because I had a sudden urge, in the face of all that violence, to go home. It was because they were alive. And for the first time in a long time, I felt deep, deep overwhelming gratitude for them.
Once I got to their apartment, it didn’t matter if I felt related to them or not. I was connected to my values, and saw that underneath our differences, there was an incredible bond, and that is one of the many things the experience of September 11 taught me to focus on. Today, I couldn’t imagine my life without being close to them.The cure for obligation sickness, I discovered, is gratitude. Click To Tweet Gratitude that you feel and express for your sake, not anybody else’s.
It is not healthy to live your entire life from obligation. But September 11 helped me to understand that the feeling of obligation sometimes accompanies performing loving actions that are in line with one’s values.
In the next few days and weeks to come, you will encounter boatloads of blogs and articles and podcasts and TV shows on Gratitude. If you’ve been around the personal growth block a few times, you know how powerful the practice is.
Don’t overdo it. Don't force yourself to be grateful for things that you are not grateful for. Click To Tweet Don’t force yourself to be grateful for things that you are not grateful for. The coffee shop woman will never be happy about spending a weekend in a smoker’s house, especially when the smoker is her mother.
Make some room for the complexity of life, and for the mixed bag of the holidays. Being grateful for someone or something doesn’t mean that they won’t also irritate you.
If you feel obligated by your holiday plans, have the courage to understand that you are going into a certain type of hell because you love, and you are expressing your gratitude and love in the best way you can — by showing up.
Don’t wait for your own national tragedy to show you what are really grateful for. All it takes to access your gratitude is a little imagination.
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