Using writing, and meditation, and ice cream, and reading, and dreams,

and a whole lot of other tools to rediscover who I am,

after six years living with a man with OCPD.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Much Obliged, Much Obliged

Now that I finally have my Christmas cards all out in the mail, I can spare the time to think about obligation.

It's kind of the ugly stepchild in the middle of FOG: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt.

Here's what has to say about it:


1. something by which a person is bound or obliged to do certain things, and which arises out of a sense of duty or results from custom, law, etc.
2. something that is done or is to be done for such reasons: to fulfill one's obligations.
3. a binding promise, contract, sense of duty, etc.
4. the act of binding or obliging oneself by a promise, contract, etc.
5. Law .
   a. an agreement enforceable by law, originally applied to promises under seal.
   b. a document containing such an agreement.
   c. a bond containing a penalty, with a condition annexed for payment of money, performance of covenants, etc.
6. any bond, note, bill, certificate, or the like, as of a government or a corporation, serving as evidence of indebtedness.
7. an indebtedness or amount of indebtedness.
8. a favor, service, or benefit for which gratitude is due.
9. a debt of gratitude: He felt an obligation to his teacher.
10. the state of being under a debt, as of gratitude, for a favor, service, or benefit.
In Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw says,  "The Japanese have five different ways to say 'thank you' — and every one of them translates literally as resentment, in various degrees. Would that English had the same built-in honesty on this point!"
Obligation - and resentment - come into big focus over the holidays.  It's said it's better to give than to receive, and that's never truer than when somebody gives us

and all we have to say is, "Wow, thanks.  Really, you shouldn't have.  Uh, gee, hope you like this scented candle."

There's a certain, ugly one-upsmanship in deliberately giving somebody a bigger, better present - and incurring an implied obligation.

When somebody does something for us, something we have not or cannot reciprocate, whether it's an elaborate gift, a big favor, then we have an inequality in our relationship.  We feel obliged.  And resentful - especially if it's something we didn't ask for, or didn't want.

Implied obligation is something that happens all the time in co-dependent relationships.  An OCPD partner may sterilize the dinner dishes like surgical instruments in a burn ward, and in their mind, they tell themselves they're doing it for us, and feel devastated and hurt when we don't seem to appreciate it.  We may bite back a dozen sarcastic comments about said dishes fixation, and consider that they owe us one for being patient with their ridiculousness.  We both feel like the other person should feel a sense of obligation towards us for all our tolerance.

In reality, we really don't have to feel gratitude for things we never asked for and didn't want, though there are certain forms of politeness expected in polite society.  "Aunt Millie!  Fuschia and lime green striped socks!  How did you know I didn't have a pair of these?!"

Back to Japan, from Crystal Tokyo 
The concept of obligation (On)
       Every Japanese person from the moment of their birth carries a burden of obligation called On and this is a very complicated concept to articulated in either Japanese or English. But here it goes; a person receives On from their parents who nurtured and loved them, from the love their younger and older siblings give them, from the learning and guidance their teachers and instructors bestowed on them, and from any other limitless number of people that the living person receives love and help from. With the On a Japanese a receives comes a requirement that the person is aware of the On, and a requirement that the person respond in kind to repay the On.
        Some kinds of On debts are called Guri, and Guri debts can be repaid through hard work, gifts, money, or volunteer work equal to the help received. But, the most difficult On debts to repay are the debts owed to family, very close friends, and ancestors, and they are called Gimu
Ruth Benedict, sums up family On, and Gimu debts by saying.     “The fullest repayment of these obligations is still no more than partial, and there is no time limit.”
When a On debt is not repaid both sides feel uneasy and upset and a proper apology must be given or a feeling of a real injury will develop.

Of course, when Americans try to apply Eastern philosophies, some... interesting things can result. 

(Was gonna share the Chipmunks' version, but couldn't find a clean copy.)

I think the way out of the foggy obligation trap is recognizing that, for the most part, we do things for ourselves.  If I choose to sterilize the dishes or buy a hugundous gift basket for a neighbor or rub the cat behind her ears, it's because I get some kind of pay-off for doing so.  I am not (or should not be) thinking it obliges either those around me to acknowledge my Saintliness, or chalks up more brownie points with the Cosmic Scorekeeper from Too Perfect.

I send out Christmas cards, because I choose to.  Once I worked through that, I was able to write the last batch of twenty personal notes that I'd been struggling over, in just a few hours.  That doesn't obligate others to send me cards back (though I always like it when they do.)  I put the card obligation on myself, and if I am having a really crappy year and decide not to send out cards, that's okay too.

If those around us are trying to maneuver us into guilt using obligation, we just have to say no.  Not buying it.  Recognize that they sit by dying Grandma's bedside or donate blood or "spoil" the kids with elaborate holiday gifts because they are getting an emotional pay-off for itWe don't have to feel guilty or obligated for choices other people make without even asking us.

We are, of course, obligated to repay money we have asked to borrow, or clothing, cars, etc.  We do owe a debt to members of our Family of Origin - but not an endless one, especially if we have been abused or neglected.  If we ask someone to do us a favor - like babysit our kids - of course we need to reciprocate.

If we've agreed on a gift exchange, we are obligated to buy gifts in the price range we've agreed upon.  I've heard that some people buy gifts for $5 at discount places that are "regularly" $20, and consider it a $20 gift, and others that leave a weird note - "here's what I would have bought you if I hadn't been too busy."  Not cool.  I got a "birthday dinner out" once to a fabulous restaurant that never happened, and he felt shocked I wasn't grateful for what he would have done.  Uh, no!  If we truly hate doing gift exchanges, we should honestly say, "I know other people really enjoy this, but my preference is not to participate."

We may not have as many obligations to others as we think we do.  And we're much better off if we consider just about everything we do for others as no-strings-attached gifts, instead of thinking others are obligated to give/behave/appreciate us in some way. 

What are your obligations that you put on yourself?  Or that others try to collect on you?