Obligations are the sources of our self-fulfillment and joy. ‘Self-fulfillment’ is a rotten description of the kind of thing I mean—it carries too much of the therapeutic, narcissistic atmosphere of corporate America and self-help books everywhere. Yet ‘flourishing,’ or ‘well-being,’ or most of my other preferred terms don’t quite get at the sense either. There is a sense in which fulfilling one’s obligations means becoming a particular person, an irrepeatable individual, which is something that goes beyond living a well-lived life.
The thought that obligations are themselves equivalent to what brings us joy is counterintuitive to most people. We generally think of what we owe to one another as encumbering us, putting burdens upon us and limiting our freedom to achieve the ends which we find desirable. Duties are often viewed as matters of necessity which we undertake for the sake of some delight which perhaps comes from them, or which we are being prevented from having otherwise.
Certain corners of evangelicalism have even undertaken to heighten the contrast between obligations and joy, duties and delights, in order to emphasize the fundamental importance of ‘enjoying’ or desiring God. It’s a caricature to say that contrast is an opposition, but it really is there: “God wants us to be willing, not feel obligated,” David Mathis writes
. That’s certainly one way of putting it; He might also want us to feel obligated, and to be glad about it. Why should we allow the language of obligations to cast a pall over us, as that sort of rhetoric allows?
C.S. Lewis is something of an icon for that particular stream of evangelicalism, and for good reason. Lewis’ ‘Weight of Glory’ is one of the most profound brief expressions of the stream of Christian thought and practice which locates desire at the center. “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak…We are far too easily pleased.” I suspect most of you can fill in the ellipses.
For Lewis, though, duties have their own place in the moral life. “The performance of a duty will probably teach you quite as much about God as academic theology would do,” he advises someone in a letter. “Isn’t duty only a second-best to keep one going until one learns to like the thing, and then it is a duty no more? When love fulfils the Law, Law (as such) flies out of the window.” Only that’s not a very satisfactory way of putting it: the law of Love does not extinguish duties, but only transform their character into occasions of happiness: the need on the other side is not diminished when love is present. Who does not enjoy the satisfaction of having found oneself really useful, of having been indispensable to another?
To be clear, Lewis and his heirs are predominately interested in the motivational aspects of duty and love. So, Lewis: “A perfect man would never act from sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people)–like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg.” My own point about the joy of obligations might be commensurate with this: we want to undertake obligations out of love, rather than out of duty.
All well and good, then? I suspect something is still lost within the distinction. The qualifier Lewis adds is troubling: a “sense of duty” need not arise only when an individual wants the wrong thing more than the right thing. It might arise when one wants a wide variety of right things, but only one is immediately necessary for him to fulfill. The perfect man might act from a sense of duty in this sense—and in so doing, rejoice and be glad for being so needed by another.
But as I set out to write about a different theme, and am only now starting to broach it, I shall leave the matter here for now.