Let’s say I’m an extremely dutiful child. Maybe my parents raised me that way, maybe I got to see an older sibling go off the rails in a horrifying way, so I resolve early on not to follow in her footsteps.
I resolve to be dutiful.
Maybe I’m interested in construction, but my parents think it would be better if I was a structural engineer.
That sounds really hard, and a little boring. But I dutifully start looking for colleges that train structural engineers.
It’s hard, because my math scores aren’t that good.
I dutifully chew through the wall of the ACT, and get into a school that has fairly low expectations, because they’re the only one that will take me.
I dutifully go to class, doing my homework, and beating my head against overwhelming math that I have a hard time grasping.
I get poor grades and accumulate debt. I go to tutoring, but I’m still not getting it.
My parents are not pleased, and they put pressure on me to “try harder”.
Desperate and afraid of what my parents will think, afraid of not fulfilling my duty, afraid of becoming that older sibling who screwed up, I start to cheat, plagiarize.
For whatever reason, my college allows me to pass classes when I really should have failed. I break down crying in front of professors, and they change my grade.
I need this, I tell them.
I get out of college, and dutifully apply for jobs. No one wants me yet, so I dutifully start working at Chipotle to pay my student loan debt while I continue the job search. I do internships, and am overwhelmed by what I see. I feel like I didn’t learn what I needed to learn in school.
At this point, I don’t care enough to try. I keep applying for jobs, because my parents are helping pay my student loan payments, and they’re pressuring me to get the “big job”.
I daydream about building walls, about bricklaying.
I see carpenters doing their work, and I feel a pang of resentment in my stomach. I cover the pang up with a trip through McDonalds.
I dutifully fill out thousands of applications, and when things start to look like I won’t get the job, pressured by parents and fear and student loan debt, I start to embellish my resume a bit.
I start to get interviews. I hate them.
My furnace malfunctions. I hate the repairman who comes to fix it. I try not to think about why I hate him. He’s just awful, that’s all. I hate him.
I start smoking to take the edge off of my anxiety about the interviews. I don’t sleep so well. I have terrible dreams.
I get a job. My parents are so proud. I fake it for a while, but when I’ve screwed up for the hundredth time, they let me go.
I don’t tell my parents. I start working two jobs to pay my student loans, which aren’t bankruptible. I make the minimums sometimes, but they loans are growing faster than I can pay them off.
I find myself exploding in anger more and more. I don’t know why.
I get another job, and I hope that no one ever asks me to design a bridge, because I’m pretty sure it would just collapse and kill everyone.
I find it difficult to care about that. I just continue doing my duty, going to work, and getting my job done.
There’s no question that I’m dutiful. But am I taking responsibility for my life?
Following the dutiful path, if it isn’t a good fit for who you are, what you’ve been gifted with, what you find meaningful – it can get you into an inescapable mess. Dutiful people are often just hiding their passivity behind a facade of virtue. It burns them up over time, because no one can abide living in a cage, even one that they helped build.
Duty isn’t the opposite of irresponsibility.
You can be dutiful and irresponsible. When you shape your life into something it shouldn’t be because someone else told you That’s What Responsible People Do, you may be very dutiful, but you’re not taking responsibility for your life.
It’s harder to take responsibility. It’s harder to talk with your parents about how you don’t want what they want. It’s harder to gently reject what society holds up as “normal” and find your own way.
It’s harder because when you wander out in the wilderness you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself.
If you dutifully do what is expected of you, you’ll be able to shake your fist at whoever told you to do it.
“I didn’t know! I didn’t have a choice!”
You did, you just chose not to choose. You let someone else choose, and you just went with the flow.
You’ll start to experience symptoms if you’re living this kind of life.
Read through the story above. If you’re not taking responsibility for your life, you might feel a little like that guy.
Your life, your rules. You know yourself, your abilities, your interests. You might not know yourself perfectly, but you know yourself better than anyone else does.
Don’t be the doctor who was forced through medical school, and ends up accidentally killing people. True story.
Don’t be the Lawyer who’s shooting heroin into his heels because all he really wanted was to be a truck driver.
This isn’t to say “throw off your responsibilities and follow your bliss! Live carefree life! ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ freely!”
No. That way lies selfish, egotistical misery.
Look at your life where it is right now, and figure out ways that you can take more responsibility for yourself, regardless of expectations and outside pressure.
What are you afraid of? What are you avoiding? What did you want when you were 10? Who do you admire? Who do you resent? These aren’t answers, but they’re clues about what you should do with your life.
You can live a responsible life while following your own path.
It might be the only way.
Don’t allow your gifts to be stunted and destroyed by blind dutifulness.
Over time, you will be destroyed, too.