Why Guilt and Duty Matter

Donald Miller has an interesting post today about why we do what we do. Excerpt:

I did an interview today and was asked about how I make decisions regarding helping others. I told the interviewer if I encounter somebody in need but don’t feel like helping them, I usually don’t. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But I explained the reason I don’t is because there are plenty of people I actually do feel like helping. And each of us only has so much time and so many resources, so I can’t choose both.

If I help the people I want to help, I’ll actually follow through, they will sense my sincerity, and the whole experience will be more enjoyable for both of us.

Not only this, but if I help the other person out of a sense of duty, I’m not so much helping them as I’m trying to get rid of my negative feelings of guilt or responsibility. My reasons are marginally selfish: I WANT TO STOP FEELING GUILTY.

Are there times when we should do something because we feel guilty? Sure. But I don’t think there are as many as we think. I don’t want to be driven by guilt, I want to be driven by love.

I agree and I don’t. I read recently (and may have blogged it) that guilt is not a good motivator for behavior. (I remember in the movie Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina says, “We will shame the West into helping us,” and I thought sadly, That’s not going to work… for one thing, it assumes we have any sense of shame to begin with.)

And I do think that with so many problems in the world, and so many issues vying for our attention, I think some discernment of gifts is essential. I think Buechner’s axiom is as good as any: to find the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s great need.

That said, Miller’s post reminded me of this bit from Office Space:

Peter Gibbons: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
Samir: So what did you say?
Peter Gibbons: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.
Michael Bolton: No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bullshit to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there’d be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.

Having a personal sense of satisfaction is important, but I’m not sure the answer is to listen less to our sense of guilt and duty. Perhaps we need to listen more, or listen more faithfully.

Personally, I think guilt has gotten a bad rap. The problem is we go to extremes with it. On one extreme, we experience a guilt that morphs into a crippling sense of shame, a feeling of worthlessness that manifests itself as inaction. On the other extreme, we dismiss the role of guilt altogether. One of Miller’s criteria for serving “for the fun of it and the love of it” is:

I normally try to serve people I like and respect. This makes serving easy because you just get to hang out and partner with good people. Helping people you like and respect makes helping fun.

I think this is dangerous. And I don’t think it’s biblical, for those who care about that sort of thing.

Guilt is an emotion like any other; it is morally neutral. It’s what you do with it that matters. If I ignore a homeless person on the street, I hope I feel guilty about that. Not so that I will flog myself for being a terrible person. Rather, the guilt is an important message that I need to hear: I am somehow responsible for that person. Not just when it feels good, or when I know the best way to help him or her. I am my brother and sister’s keeper. I tell parishioners this all the time when they ask me whether they did the right thing by helping someone (or not helping someone they suspected was a con artist). I can’t tell you that, because I don’t know, I say. And then they counter, But I feel very unsettled and uncomfortable about it.

Good, I usually respond.

Later in the post Miller says:

If you asked your dad why he sacrifices so much for you, which answer would be more affirming, an answer in which he stated it was his duty as a father, or an answer in which he just said “because I love you.” Which answer seems more selfless?

I agree that the love answer is more affirming. But I don’t think that acting out of love makes one more selfless. In fact, I think he creates a false dichotomy between love and duty. Duty is an outgrowth of love. What is love without a sense of duty? Warm, empty feelings.

All those nights I woke up to nurse an infant, when I was so tearfully, fretfully tired that I would have given large sums of money to have someone else do it for me, I did so because I had a responsibility to that child. And I had a responsibility to my child because I love her. They are the same thing.

One of the favorite shows in our family is “Dirty Jobs.” Mike Rowe is the host, and he travels the country visiting people who do, well, dirty jobs: leech wranglers, spider-venom collectors, roadkill cleaners, etc. He learns their jobs and usually does the work right alongside them.

Mike Rowe has spoken about the traditional advice we receive in determining our career and has called it hooey:

“When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart.”

“If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a ‘true purpose.’ In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all—they have instead brought it with them.”

I say Amen.

What do you say?


14 thoughts on “Why Guilt and Duty Matter

  1. Keith Snyder says:

    I clicked over the the article, saw this

    Dad wakes up and takes care of his crying child, even though he doesn’t want to get out of bed. Are they doing these things out of a sense of duty or obligation? Hopefully not. Hopefully they are making sacrifices BECAUSE THEY WANT TO.

    and closed the browser window. I seem to recall muttering something at the same time.

    Doing what you love is valuable, and a gift. Doing ONLY what you love is plain old self-centeredness. I get up and help my child the first fifty times because I love him. Time #51, it’s duty. Love would let him lie there in his urine.

    • MaryAnn says:

      One need not have children to understand what you and I are describing, but Donald Miller doesn’t have kids. And it shows.

      One of my favorite Simpsons episodes is a flashback in which Homer finds out that a surprise baby #3 is on the way. He has to go back to the nuclear power plant and beg Mr. Burns for his job back, after pursuing the (low-paying) job of his dreams. Mr. Burns obliges but has a plaque mounted in front of Homer’s station that says, “Don’t forget, you’re here forever.” Homer covers up the plaque with pictures of baby Maggie until all that’s left says, “Do it for her.”

      Sweet and noble.

      Like Homer and Marge, I have a bonus baby, so I can relate.

      • MaryAnn says:

        I go through periods where I unsub from Don’s blog, but I always go back. So much of what he says is brilliant, in my opinion. Other times I think he’s insane. But through it all he leaves a Donald Miller-shaped hole in the wall, and I always respect that.

  2. Keith Snyder says:

    Ahhhhh… no kids. OK, that makes sense. I was thinking “What a ****ed-up dad.”

  3. Martha Turner Fein says:

    The emphasis on doing things for the right reason seems like a very Christian concept to me. (Tied into the idea some Christians have that it’s more important to believe the right things than to act in righteous ways.) Judaism says that doing the act is the important thing — and it’s more important to do it than to think about it properly. (In fact, it’s actually easier for a non-Jew to be considered righteous, since they have fewer obligations on them.)

    Giving charity grudgingly still helps the person who needs the money. Doing good is a duty, not an option, according to most rabbis. If it makes you feel good, that’s a help. But even if it doesn’t, you have to do it anyway.

    Even people who are living on charity donations are required to donate to charity, because it is our obligations as Jews and as humans.

    That’s what I find uncomfortable about saying “I only help people I want to help.” You’re more worried about how you feel than about the people who need help. Yes, it’s a duty. Yes, you should feel guilty if you don’t do these things. Not crippling guilt, but that of recognizing that you’re not living up to what’s required of you as a decent human being.

    Now, there’s an argument on the other side too. You’re not required to give more than you have. In fact, the rabbis specified a minimum and a MAXIMUM you can give to charity. (5% is the minimum and 20% of your income is the maximum.)

    So given that you can only give X amount, you are certainly welcome to choose where your money goes. But ignoring the person in front of you because you feel better giving to someone else is just wrong. The person in front of you is asking because they have needs — whether or not you like them doesn’t tie into the obligation to help them meet those needs.

    • MaryAnn says:

      The “I only help people I want to help” thing is also why I’m skeptical of the idea that the government needs to get out of the social safety net business and leave it to charities and congregations. Besides feeling like that’s infeasible, there are some people who need help whom folks will not deem worthy of their help. Our own American untouchables, if you will.

      Martha, I think sometimes I could be a Jew, except that I just can’t quit Jesus 🙂

      Donald Miller is what we might call a neo-evangelical, and he’s definitely working his own stuff out from that perspective. Where he comes from, it’s all about right belief and right thinking. In mainline Christianity there’s been a big shift away from disembodied beliefs and toward embodied, lived practice. That’s what (we believe) Jesus was getting at with his kingdom of God stuff.

  4. marciglass says:

    Just wrote a sermon for tomorrow on John 13 and Jesus washes Judas’ feet, even though Judas is about to betray him. I suspect that the “new commandment” to love one another requires more of us than “I feel like it” or “I like you, so I’ll help you”.
    Yes, at some point, we can’t help everyone. But at the same time, we’re supposed to.

    I remember when my son was in pre-school, the teacher said “we don’t require kids to say they are sorry. If they don’t mean it, why should they say it?”
    I bristled against that understanding and said, “please require my child to apologize, no matter his level of remorse. Because doing the right thing when he doesn’t want to do so will teach him how and why we do the right thing.”
    I’m not sure the pre-school illustration is directly related to your post, but it brought the story to mind.

    • MaryAnn says:

      I think it does relate somehow… though I tend to side with the teachers. There’s something about requiring a child to say words that aren’t true that feels different to me than, say, requiring them to stop hitting or biting or taking a child’s toy. The latter is about *ceasing* something and is a reasonable request for everyone’s safety; the former feels coercive to me because it is asking a child to *do* something affirmative.

      • Keith Snyder says:

        To me, the age of the child makes a difference. For a preschooler, I’m with the teachers. For older kids, they need to start learning to pretend like adults.

        An additional side to this, though, is that apologies mean such hugely different things to different people. Gender alone draws a pretty sharp divide through the subject, and then culture, personality, class, Myers-Briggs types…

  5. Sue says:

    weird day. weird day. I have seen Buechner’s reference in three totally separate places today! Our congregation is doing “Five Practices of Fruitful Living” in small groups for Lent. Just read Chapter 4 today on Risk-Taking Mission and Service. I liked the following about serving others:

    “a well-lived life that is in touch with reality involves sacrificing ourselves in the daily care of our children, the love of a spouse, the care of a neighbor, and the service to strangers, each day giving parts of ourselves up, and losing our lives for others. Nothing sustains the flourishing of life and spirit like genuinely pouring ourselves into the lives of others. This does not diminish life; it fulfills it. This is love.”

    He goes to talk about helping the ones we DON’T want to help – how we make a choice:

    “If we move toward suffering rather than running away from it, we experience uncomfortable moments and awkward incidents. We risk feeling helpless, or worse, we risk sharing the pain of the person who suffers….It leaves us vulnerable.”

    and really – how many of us seek to be uncomfortable and vulnerable…

  6. MaryAnn says:

    I recently read this article at the Christian Century site and I think it is informing how I read Donald Miller’s post:


    Weissbourd’s research shows that most children assume that “being happy” is the their primary life goal; two-thirds consider this more important than “being a good person.” The self-esteem movement tries to bridge this gap. Weissbourd characterizes the trend as “fill yourself up first, and then help your neighbor.” The problem is that high self-esteem can just as easily lead to arrogance and harm. “Contentment infamously breeds indifference.” Additionally, Weissbourd sees the focus on moment-to-moment happiness as robbing children of the opportunity to develop the skills to be a good friend, romantic partner, colleague or parent.”

    After all, adults in previous generations didn’t think that morality came from self-esteem or happiness. They commonly believed the idea, rooted in the Bible and much of Western literature, that morality came from suffering. Moral character came from making sacrifices, fulfilling difficult obligations, empathizing with the pain and burdens of others, and surviving hard times.

    I think that business about suffering could use some nuance, but the basic point has some bearing here. Miller seems to suggest that we make ourselves happy in our quest to be good people; I would suggest that in seeking after virtue, even when it isn’t “fun,” we find true happiness.

    • I’d like to differentiate between contentment and complacency. To me, the former indicates a sense of serenity, while the latter conveys more of a sense of laziness and stagnation.

      Similarly, I agree with the original contention that guilt can poison charity, yet I have no problem with duty being as important an impetus as love. Personally, I think living all life with love is the ideal, but sometimes, you just don’t feel it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop doing good things until you’re in the right mood.

      Having said that, I agree with your assertion that working towards a better life (for ourselves, for others — what you call “seeking after virtue”) brings a depth of happiness that merely following the path of “fun” good works is lacking.

  7. Kaleb says:

    I clicked over here from the comments section on Don’s blog. Thanks for this response. Kind of affirms my own response (last comment on the older comments page).

  8. MaryAnn says:

    Oh geez… Don is getting a lot of mileage out of this. From Relevant Magazine:


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