Obligation Is a Liar: On Telling the Truth


It seems a bit dramatic to say that a text changed my life.  But, this one undoubtedly changed the direction of mine.  A friend had just texted me with a question.  I didn’t know her all that well at the time.  But, I did really enjoy her friendship.

She had asked a favor.  It wasn’t a big favor.  It was pretty inconsequential, really.  But, it rankled.  Not so much because of what she asked, but because of other things going on right then.  I knew that I couldn’t do what she had asked with love or kindness.  I could do it out of obligation.  But, I could not do it out of love.

It was years ago, but I remember very distinctly sitting in my room debating over a response.  I wrote and re-wrote the text three times.  I could agree to what was being asked.  I could skirt around the issue.  Or, I could lay my heart out honestly.  It would require saying “no”.  It would require saying things that were a little uncomfortable.  

Ultimately, I decided to take a risk.  Because I did like this friend.  And, because I wanted to test a theory that was growing in my heart.  I wanted to see what would happen if I told the truth.

So, I told her "no".  I explained that I could do it.  I wasn’t double booked or physically incapable of doing this favor.  But, I wasn’t going to do it.  Then I explained why.  I told her my heart.  I told the truth.

And a miraculous thing happened.  I do not use that word lightly.  This truly is a miracle:  She laughed.  Digitally, of course.  But, she laughed.  Not at me, but with me.  At the situation.  At all the twisted ways we wrap ourselves up and get turned around and mixed up.

She saw the reality of my humanness and she didn’t back away.  She came closer.  She agreed that some things in life are absurd, and that they are better shared than hidden.  That one truth rewarded me with one of the most fulfilling freiendships I have.

But, it did even more than that.  It created a little crack in an ironclad assumption I had always lived with.  An assumption that told me that silent acceptance was better than uncomfortable honesty.  Even more pernicious still, it was an assumption that told me that doing something out of obligation was better than not doing it at all.

The Lie Obligation Tells Us

I had believed this.  I had believed that doing something—even when my heart was far away, was better than not doing it.  I had believed that the action alone was enough.  That doing could somehow outrun the rotting of my insides.  I had believed a lie.

Here’s the thing about obligation.  Resentment follows fast on its heels.  Every time.  It is not a benign thing to act out of obligation.  It comes with its own set of consequences.  It is toxic.  Rancor, bitterness and animosity are its noxious byproducts.

Obligation is the great obfuscater.  It wants us to believe that we can hand over our power to decide to someone else and still remain whole.  It wants us to abdicate our ability to choose—to succumb without decision.  

Because it is expected.  Because it will please others.  Because it appears to be the right thing to do.  

Obligation tells us that the doing is the important part, and the heart is inconsequential.

The Harder Truth of True

But, the heart is everything.  And the heart is a far trickier matter.   Relying on obligation, I’ve been trying to take the easy way.  To do the things that appear to be true.  Keep a clean house.  Raise well-behaved children.  If a meeting is scheduled, I attend it.  If a bake sale is organized, I bake.   

This other choice—this becoming true—it’s far more difficult.  It requires me to ask the more difficult questions.  How many hearts go untouched in the flurry of a bake sale?  How much change am I missing out on, as I keep myself busy in meetings?

Obligation is focused on other’s expectations and approval.  This is where Obligation takes on its other form—being “good”.  Not in a universally Good way.  But, in a particular, externally verifiable sort of way.  Something others can measure.  Something that can be evaluated, to determine whether I meet the definition of “good”?  Am I a good parent?  A good student?  A good neighbor?  But, true is a matter of the heart.  It’s what’s inside.  Good and true may often look the same from the outside, but they can be worlds different within.

That gets difficult, because it means I can’t validate my truth through anyone else.  No one can like or comment or double tap to say they approve.  I have to put aside my addiction to outside validation.  I have to be willing to stand just with myself (and my God) and ask what is true.
But this is work I have to do.  I think my job in this life is to become more true.  True to me.  True to the divinity that’s within me.  I think I’m here to say true words; to preform true actions.

How to Tell the Truth: A Beginner’s Guide

I’m only a beginner myself.  I’m at the start of my journey to understand what really telling the truth means.  But, I’ll offer a few observations that I’ve made so far.

Truth and Love

Truth looks an awful lot like Love.  They may well be the same thing.  It may be, that in time, I'll learn that they are.  What I know for now is that they are both real and they are both internal.  But, they show up in my actions.  They are the impetus when I’m doing the very best things I was put here to do.  When I act of out of love — when I do what is true—I am most alive.

This becomes a helpful reference point for me.  I can ask myself this about an event, an opportunity.  Can I go out of love?  That one question is a good beginning.  And, it leads to the second thing I’ve learned.

Saying No

The answer to this question will often be “no”.  Telling the truth requires that I say “no” to the things I do only from a place of obligation.  It means that I might have to step away from something—even something very good.  Maybe not forever.  But for now.  Until I can do it for real.  Until it is true.

This is critical.  It frees up my time and my heart to say “yes” to the right things.  When I say “no” to the wrong things, there isn’t the rancor of resentment ringing my heart.  I’m not so pressed for time, running around, meeting all these obligations.  That means space begins to open up.  And in that space, Love grows.

But, saying "no" isn’t easy.  It means being ok with being misunderstood.  It means accepting that people may interpret that “no” as selfish, anti-social or non-participatory.  It is an act of bravery to be true.  But, bravery is rewarded with power.  The uncomfortable “no”s lead to the right “yes”s.


What about when I can’t say "no"?  What about the dinner I need to make, even when I don’t feel like it?  What about the noses to wipe and events to attend?  

This is where this last lesson comes in.  There are things I must do, even when I don’t feel a particular love about them.  And curiosity is my answer to those moments.  Curiosity is accessible to me, even when love and being present feel slippery.  I can ask questions.  I can wonder.

When I’m preparing dinner, I can pay attention.  I can really feel the chicken as I dress it.  I can smell the vegetables as they cook.  And then, I am there.  This food that I'm preparing is real.  This thing that I am doing for my family is true.

I can be curious when I need to attend an event that I’d rather not.  I can bring the same sense of wonder to meeting new people that I bring to visiting a new place.  I don’t show up with an agenda and I try to abandon expectations.  I can do that with people, too.  I can choose to wander—to experience with curiousity—among my fellow humans.

All of this helps.  But, so does realizing that there are fewer of these absolutely mandatory things than I think.  I can tell the difference if I’m willing to let go of other people’s imposed expectations.  If I will let go of being needed as a way to feel validated, I will see that the truly required things are quite few indeed.

By clearing the rest away, I can see what’s true.