Gratitude and Obligation


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. Share on X 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. Share on X 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.

Personal Leadership can help you get through the holidays. It may be time for an Authority Makeover. Click the clink for more details about this unique coaching experience.

13 responses to “Gratitude and Obligation”

  1. LOVE this post Blair! Your personal story is such a powerful reminder of how dear our loved ones are and how easily we can take them for granted.

    It is good to be reminded that we can overcome that sense of obligation and guilt by changing our focus. …feeding our minds thoughts of gratitude turns obligation into contribution…

  2. Jon Mertz says:


    A great point on how gratitude can change our attitude and focus on where to place it and in what ways. Gratitude can spring from many different places and people and we need to be mindful and understanding of where gratitude will show up. Very insightful…. thanks! Jon

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks, John. It is a gift when gratitude spontaneously happens, rather than having to practice it! Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Terri Klass says:

    Beautiful post, Blair and I think we sometimes get into the head set of assuming our families and friends will always be there.

    It is a two way street with relationships and both sides need to be grateful and tell each other that.

    Loved your story too!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Terri, thank you!!! Such a good points that families are a two way street. Sometimes the gratitude only comes from one side and that is problematic for a while, and then as age sets in, in certain cases with certain people, it ceases to matter.
      I am VERY grateful for your thoughts and comments, Terri.

  4. Blair ~ You always, without fail, cut through the “trappings” and nail the point. Thank you for the wonderful insight. Holidays are hard on so many people, for so many reasons… and “those” people are the difficulty I face this time of year. This is a good reminder for me as well ~ it is love that keeps us together, brings us together.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Amber-Lee, thanks so much for your kinds words and comment. It can be hard to focus on the love when people we love are difficult. But it does wonders.

  5. Ah, Blair – when I got to “Perhaps some of you can relate.” it just about cracked me up, so to speak, for I know it’s not just me out here relating to what you have to say…sometimes I think the “Obligation Disease” (good descriptive term for it) comes in varying “strenghts” – and that some people are riddled with it, possessed even, of feeling obligated where there exists neither rime nor reason, an obligation to a figment. Often I feel that, when, for instance, I have created an obligation that does no really exists, yet I feel it’s presence, and forget, well, that I have put it there. This happens with the “chats”, for me I feel a strong obligation to “be there” at the ones I have chosen to be part of. It is difficult to give myself permission “not to be there” – Being kind to oneself is also an obligation. I am trying to learn that. “Do it because it brings you joy” is always a good index – “Do it because someone else might (actually also or might not) be expecting you to do it, not so much.
    Anyway, this is a big issue in negotiating the difficult path of human-being, so thank you for taking it on and sharing your thoughts with us.

  6. there are the “little obligations” like feeling the necessity to correct the misspelling in my comment…or just enjoying the luxury of letting it go…LOL

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Wayne, thanks so much for your comments. You beautifully outlined the different dimensions of obligation. And balance is such an important part of negotiating it well. BTW, I feel that sometimes with the chats, too! Obligation is a difficult issue and there is much more to be said about it. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Wayne.

  7. Tom Rhodes says:

    A wonderful post. September 11 2001, April 23 2011 (my Dad’s passing) the year 2014. All things that help me remember how grateful I should be for what I have.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. I am grateful for our connection.


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