On Obligation

Obligation does not have to be a suffocating burden. It can be an invitation to a world of wonder and belonging.


Jun 16, 2024

Photo by Ramin Talebi / Unsplash

2 min read

What do you think of when you hear the word obligation? For many, it conjures up feelings of confinement to someone or something else. It is a stifling requirement to carry out a burdensome chore.

Obligation is probably one of the first words people think about when they talk about having kids. Kids obligate you to a life of schedules and routines and diapers and bedtimes. It's a familiar trope that gets pulled out for many movies and shows — like the movie Big Daddy with Adam Sandler or the show Up All Night with Will Arnett and Christina Applegate. These series focus on the surprise of having kids and the slow and painful acclimation of the parent to adjust to these new obligations.

As a parent, I can definitely relate to that feeling. There are times I wish I could finish a book or a show or even a thought without interruption. My wife and I schedule date nights just so we can finish conversations.

What if this is a narrow and myopic definition? What if we could reclaim the definition of this word and open a new door to a wonderful world of love and belonging?

In the book Deep Symbols, Edward Farley provides a new definition that can take us on this journey:

"Obligation is the suspension of self-oriented agendas by taking responsibility for that which is other than ourselves… that means we are seized by the needs, aims, vulnerabilities, sufferings… in short, the total condition of the other."

Obligation according to Farley is a pull outside of ourselves that can only be called into existence by an "other". It is first an acknowledgement or awareness that the other exists. It then becomes an invitation to see the other's situation and respond. We don't lose ourselves in the obligation. We take with us our own joys, desires and living. In obligation, it's like our spheres of influence combine to create an entirely new sphere full of shared life that is made even larger in the sharing.

I now think of the obligation to my kids as world building. We are building a world of shared inside jokes, unique memories and deep belonging to each other. I'm learning to meet my kids where they are and share in their interests: my son's love of monster trucks and Transformers, my daughters' interests in pop music and facials and unicorns and bags.

So, the next time you are confronted with an obligation, instead of immediately feeling the burden of a chore or a task obligated by someone else — think of it as an invitation to create an even bigger world where the shared experience and responsibility opens your heart and mind to a sacred dance of meaning.

© 2024 Ross Gebhart