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I have always seen duty as paramount. Duty prevailed over need, want, pleasure, choice, happiness or self-direction.

Whatever you did, and you could do anything, you had to first ensure that you did your duty to God and your fellow man.

Duty first.

This is a deeply held sense of duty. I moralised extensively. I gave it primacy over all moral virtue because it was the life objective: the primary obligation of the adult in society. Duty was the ultimate obligation.

No matter how unwilling you were. Or how onerous the duty. Or how irrational.

Duty first.

As you may guess from my recent post, I’m not so cocksure about my sense of duty. Or the importance of duty. Certainly not its total primacy.

Many of the things I’ve been thinking have recently been said – better than I could say them – by the ever interesting Steve Pavlina:

While you may have been convinced that these duties are important, the truth is that they’re of no particular importance to people with high self-esteem and a positive sense of self-worth. Such people do not care how much money you make, what kind of provider you are, or how long you’ve been married to the same person. They’re much more curious about something else: how you feel about yourself and the path you’re walking.

When, however, I connect with people who are responsibly doing their duty, but who haven’t yet cultivated a life of happiness, I can’t help but notice the sallow desperation in their eyes, the numbness with which they speak, and the damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t game of self-deception they play each day. They feel trapped and lost to the point where they label feelings like depression and frustration with words like “fine” and “okay.”

If you find yourself in such a situation, there is a way out, and it begins with finally acknowledging the truth to yourself and diving into the dark places where you think it may lead. Accept your situation as it is, and most importantly, accept how you feel about it. The reality is that the darkness you fear is really nothing to fear at all. Yes, you may face some challenges, but that is how you’ll grow.

Steve Pavlina describes meeting the dutiful person. If you read his blog though, it’s clear that Steve Pavlina is not one of those people. Maybe he was that person once, but he isn’t now.

I have met that person. I have walked in his shoes, thought his thoughts and weighed his heart. I am that person. I am a duty bound slave.

A person doing their duty should look bleak. A life lived for duty erodes you from the inside. It wears you down until you are ground down emotionally. It leaves behind the finest dust in your heart that stops all positive feelings

You can exercise no hope, no creativity, no wisdom and no strength except in the discharge of your duty.

But duty is never ending. There are always more duties.

Duty is unforgiving. What you do is too little.

Duty is ever present. You can never fail to do your duty.

Duty is harsh. If you’re going to do your duty do it right or don’t do it.

Duty is ungrateful. After all you are only doing your duty: what you should do.

Duty is expectation. Someone has decided what you must do. Your job is not to ask but to do. To obey or go away.

On the day that realisation hits you, or worse you become comfortable with that burden, it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing in your eyes anything but a life of quiet desperation.

The truth is that duty is a self-locking prison. Duty bound and an ardent believer in duty you will discharge the task no matter the cost. It’s about who you are after all: dutiful. And at that point it doesn’t matter how aware you are of the prison at that point because you can’t imagine a life without duty anymore.

I’m trying to be more aware now of what is duty and what is choice. I no longer see my life as duty first. For now that’s the most I can do. But it’s a valuable start.



    • James Lewis
    • Posted August 17, 2012 at 11:52 pm
    • Permalink

    I think that there is “duty”, and there is what is “right”.

    If you make this distinction, what you have said is true.

    But following what is “right” is like standing upon a rock. Yes, it tells you what you must do, and where you must go – but it also gives you a wild strength – a delight – that duty does not.


    And – in a sense – it is co-operative: because your soul has participated in it – has chosen to accept its “rightness”.

    Because of this, it is enabling – it enables and edifies your free choice – and the consequences of it. It guides your free choice in the hard and dark times. It gives you strength to do what you would want to do if you were sane, rational and free (in the times when you are defeated, depressed and lonely).

    It is the difference between a law written on stone tablets, and law written on the living flesh of human hearts.

      • mtalib
      • Posted August 18, 2012 at 12:11 am
      • Permalink

      That is a very important distinction to make James and one I entirely agree with.

      I ha initially intended to draw a distinction between duty and service as part of the post.

      Duty is as I have described it.

      Service is what you have described as “right”. It is the self-chosen, value-reflecting choices that make action in conformity with those choices both desirable and fulfilling.

        • James Lewis
        • Posted August 18, 2012 at 12:25 am
        • Permalink

        Then we are agreed. The only difference in our views in the level of relativism 😉

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