A couple of Sundays ago it was Mothers' Day in Australia. There were families everywhere down at the beachfront and in the cafes, some with flowers, presents, some just sitting together eating. As I watched people I noticed the variety of emotional tones. Some engaged and present, others seemed there in body only, dispatching their obligation to take mum somewhere on her day lest they be seen as a 'bad son' or 'bad daughter'.
Like all occupations, people vary in how well they perform the job of parenting. It strikes me as a great gloss-over in our society that family relationships are spoken of as wonderful close bonds. There are some lucky people for whom that's true, but many people have some shade of strained or pained relationship with their parents. To expect that everyone feels gratitude to their parents is like expecting that every gambler is rich. I personally know people whose mothers all but abandoned them as children yet now expect veneration for being their mother. In reality our relationships with our parents depend on our experience of being parented, who our parents are now, and in what ways we've grown in our adult life.
This got me thinking about motives and intentions. What are the intentions driving attendance at the obligatory Mothers' Day outing and are they different to the intentions of those actively participating in and valuing it? For some time now I've been testing the theory that all motivations come down to one of two sources: fear or joy. In some ways we could call the latter love but because love has so many different definitions I'm going to stick with joy. The fact that I haven't thrown out this theory yet shows that it has stood up pretty well so far.
One of the key elements of the Buddha's teaching is the focus on intention. Intention and motivation are closely intertwined. Motivation comes from the same latin root as emotion, 'motere' meaning 'to move'. So what I'm really exploring here is 'what moves us?', 'are we honest with ourselves about this?' and assuming we are then 'what do we do with the honest answers?'.
I suspect the vast majority of movement or action comes from a mixture of motives and intents. So perhaps some of these obligatory Mothers' Day attendees are motivated both by fear (being seen as a bad son/daughter; giving Mum something to guilt trip us with for the next year; getting in trouble with Dad; feeling sad at the thought of Mum spending the day alone) and at the same time by joy (wanting Mum to feel loved, wanting harmony in the family).
In my experience, the words 'should', 'have to' and 'supposed to' are often a red flag for some kind of obligation. "I have to go to lunch with Mum". It's an interesting exercise to list the things you feel you 'should' do or 'have to' do and then re-write them starting with 'because I want.......' and fill in the blanks. Then have a look at what you've written and examine the extent to which it's based on fear and the extent to which it's based on joy.
I've found that many 'shoulds' come straight from the imaginary mouth of some authority figure from the past, often parents, sometimes teachers, spiritual leaders or other people with some kind of power over us. We 'should' eat with our mouths closed, we 'shouldn't' take the Lord's name in vain, we 'should' offer a seat on the bus to an adult etc. I'm not suggesting that these are all bad ideas but I do think it's useful to look at what 'moves us' to abide by these obligations. What I've observed is that most obligations come from the fear flavoured motivations. Fear of shame for not being a 'good' daughter/ son/ friend/ sister etc. and the possible judgment and possibly rejection that can flow from this.
In a sense obligation is a form of manipulation. Behave in this way otherwise you'll suffer judgment or worse. From a young age I never liked it and sensed that it was rarely in my own interests and almost always in other people's. It's a way of getting what you want from someone without taking into account their needs or wishes. Take the example of a school kid being obliged to offer a seat to an adult on a crowded bus. What if we explained to the kid that the adults on the bus are the ones who are working hard to pay for the running of the bus and that as a school kid, they are essentially being supported by the adults on the bus. There's a chance the kid might be motivated to offer the spare seat willingly out of gratitude rather than fear of shame.
A friend of mine recently asked how often I speak to my mother on the phone. I told her it was once every 3-4 weeks. She speaks to her mother every week but doesn't enjoy it. On hearing the frequency of my maternal contact she is revising the necessity of calling her mum that often. I suspect if she calls her as often as she wants to rather than as often as she feels she needs to in order to be a 'good daughter', the quality of conversation might improve.
Another good friend of mine admitted to me that the only reason he stays in contact with his mother was because he felt obliged to. She is a source of much stress for him and very little joy. The good son/ bad son manipulation is alive and well in this relationship and the quality of the relationship, even when he does call or visit like a 'good son', is not great. If the truth is that his genuine motivations would have him lose contact with his mother, then perhaps that prospect might precipitate a conversation about their relationship. This may improve it. If not, perhaps compassion for himself might suggest he let it go.
Is there a 'shouldn't' coming up there for you at that suggestion? If so, where did that come from? Does it serve you? If you're a parent yourself, then maybe you'd like to preserve that 'should' to keep your own children in line? Does thinking of that as a manipulative attitude change how you feel about it? What is the fear of letting go of this 'should'? What comes up for you if you imagine that parents get no special treatment; that they reap the relationship they sow with their children just like everyone else and are honoured or not accordingly? Are there any parental-sounding voices coming up at this suggestion? Shoulds can be wonderful doors into some of the unquestioned corners of our psychological landscapes.
I had an interesting experience of this on a meditation retreat a few years ago. The wife of the meditation teacher would sit at the dinner table with her elbows on the table and lower her head down to the fork to get her food. I was surprised to find that disdain and condescension arose for me - quickly and strongly. Then I heard the parental voice instructing her in an admonishing tone to lift her fork to her mouth, not the other way around. I found it so curious that I could have such an instant and strong reaction to such a trivial thing. This tends to be what happens when we see one of the 'shoulds' we adopted early in life contravened. The reaction is strong, fast, negative, often contains fear (often of shame) and is mostly unexamined.
It is possible to have joy based 'shoulds' but from what people tell me they are few and far between (I personally don't have many 'shoulds' these days). I sometimes think I should do some work on my blog but that's driven from the knowledge that it's often difficult to get a big enough block of clear time to write. So I need to make myself do something I don't naturally do (structure my time) so that I can do something I want to do. The truth is, I love to write! And the instruction is coming from me, no-one else real or imaginary.
So the suggestion for action from this post is to identify the 'shoulds' in your life and how you feel about them. Is there aversion, fear or angst in there, and/or is there positive energy in the 'should'? If you're complying with 'shoulds' get clear on why you are doing so and whether that motivation is springing from fear or from joy. If it's fear, there's an opportunity for insight there, an opportunity to look closely at your beliefs and motivations and to question them.
I remember a participant on my leadership program realising that he did lots of things for his mother in law out of fear of her judgment. She had all sorts of 'shoulds' regarding what sons-in-law were 'supposed' to do (whom do you think they served?). When this fellow realised how he was being manipulated with fear, and how his mother-in-law's behaviour was at odds with his values of acceptance and love of family, he decided to respond differently. When we look closely at these things, that possibility arises.