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?