‘I must’ or ‘I choose’

I’ve been reading and reflecting on Brené Brown’s excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection, which is subtitled Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. A big theme of the book is authenticity—which I as a Christian would define as ‘taking the risk of being the person God designed me to be, not the person I think I should be or the person other people want me to be.’

It has reminded me of something C.S. Lewis wrote to a god-daughter on the day of her confirmation service. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it’s something like this: ‘Always remember that there are only three things anyone must do: (1) duties, (2) necessities, and (3) things we take pleasure in.’

‘Duties’ means moral imperatives: commands of God, given to guide us in wise, loving and holy living (eg. ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’). ‘Necessities’ means things we have to do to live and be healthy and well (go to work, eat sensibly and get good exercise, brush your teeth etc.). ‘Things we take pleasure in’—well, that of course will vary widely, depending on our tastes.

The problem is, so many people have added fourth and fifth categories: (4) ‘things other people want me to do’, and (5) ‘things I think I should do because I think they’re what other people expect.’

Of course, ‘things other people want me to do’ can be duties and/or necessities—for instance, if they’re part of my job. If I’ve taken a job that includes certain responsibilities, I can’t then turn around and say ‘I don’t want to fulfil some of those responsibilities because I don’t enjoy them.’ They’re job requirements, and if I want to draw a pay cheque, I’m obligated to fulfil them.

But in so many cases, (4) and (5) aren’t job requirements; they’re things I feel compelled to do, so that other people will like me and approve of me. Many of us are so insecure that we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, trying to be who we’re not and do what we’re not suited to do, in the desperate attempt to win people’s liking and approval. And it’s all an empty quest, because even if we succeed, the person they like and approve of is not the real me; it’s a fake persona I’ve created to impress them.

I’ve noticed that some people seem bound by the language of compulsion: ‘We’ve got to do such and such’. I often feel like saying, ‘No, we don’t. We live in a free country, and we can choose what we do. But every choice we make leads to consequences, so we get to choose which set of consequences are important to us.’

I’m commanded by Jesus to love my neighbour as myself. But that doesn’t mean I have to do everything my neighbour wants me to do or asks me to do. Some of my neighbour’s expectations of me may well be unreasonable and/or impossible. Some will be things my neighbour can and should do for herself. And some of them are legitimate needs, but better suited to the expertise of others. For instance, my neighbour may need some repairs to his vinyl plank flooring, but I’d be foolish to offer that help; I’d just make the problem worse!

As I look back over my life, one of the things I regret the most is the amount of time and energy I’ve wasted on being a people-pleaser, rather than a person who relaxes in the certainty of God’s love for me, and chooses freely to love people appropriately and wisely, not out of a sense of compulsion. The Gifts of Imperfection is helping me reflect on that problem, and find a better way forward. As I go into this new year, I look forward to the next steps on that journey of freedom.

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