“Nothing shapes your life more than the commitments you choose to make.” –Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life
“Commitment…something which is loved and hated in equal measure.” –Kiran Joshi
I have been the bad guy at my house lately. Fun-killer. Mean Dad. Wet blanket. All of that stuff. Me.
You see, my wife really wants a dog. She spends her free time researching the countless different designer breeds and pulls up pictures of each one to share with my kids so they can all “OOH” and “AHH” together. Because of course the kids want a dog, too. What kid doesn’t? My wife knows this and plays the situation like a maestro. It gets mentioned in any interaction with family or friends. More inquiries are made. More photos. “OOH!” “AHH!”
I, meanwhile, have not budged from my position. I do not want a dog. Don’t get me wrong: I like dogs. I really do. I love their energy, their loyalty, their playfulness, their goodness. I grew up with dogs and loved all of them. I see how much other people love their dogs, too, how much they are truly a part of the family. I understand their value. And honestly, I know I would be best pals with a dog if I had one.
But, I don’t want one. I never have, in all of my adult life. It boils down to one thing: RESPONSIBILITY.
Perhaps a brief, adulthood-only autobiography would make this stance easier to understand about me. In my twenties, I didn’t spend a single day wanting to be married, wanting to have kids, or wanting a pet. I was deep into my personal development and cultivating ideas to make the world a better place to live. I had no interest in being “tied down,” even though I was in love the last few years of that decade. When I hit 30, I finally surrendered to the idea of being a husband and father. The decision didn’t come easily, as I was so deeply happy and at peace without the long-term commitments and responsibilities that I questioned the wisdom of trading that for the more conventional life that everyone else seemed to go in for. I wondered if I was just not wired for it—full disclosure: I still have that wonder way down underneath it all–and would at some point crack in the face of all that obligation and selflessness. Still, I made the choice to dive in, knowing that it was not just marriage that I was signing up for but marriage with children. Two, not more. I had accepted a cat into the deal before the kids came along. When he died when they were young, I decided he was easy enough to care for that getting a replacement was okay. But that’s it. No more. No more kids, no more animals, no more spouses. With all of them plus a home to take care of, that was my absolute limit. I needed some room for myself, too.
Now, with the cat 13 and the kids 12 and 10, I am still walking that tightrope. I am all-in on the husband and fatherhood deal, but I have also carved out enough space to still feel like a unique human being instead of being swallowed whole by my responsibilities. However, I am also well-aware of the daily sacrifices of the personal, soul-feeding stuff I would otherwise like to do and had done before this chapter in my life began. Even with that awareness, I can say concretely that I have made a good bargain in adding these guys to my world, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I love my life and appreciate the choices I have made, the responsibilities I have taken on. I am the family man.
Enter the dog proposition.
I understand that it probably seems like the logical next step. I have the house and the yard. My wife can help. The kids are theoretically at an age where they can feed it, walk it, and scoop the poop. And dogs are cool. It sounds like a slam dunk.
And yet, everything in my independent soul is screaming, “NO WAY!” It stresses me just to think about it. I picture that cute little guy and think, “Sorry buddy, it’s not you. It’s me.” Because it is. It’s totally me.
I simply don’t want any more responsibilities. Well, at least not of the large and long-term variety. I want to be a wonderful, totally devoted father who spends as much time with his kids as they allow, all the way until they grow up and move away. I want to be good to my cat (who, of course I know, is much less demanding than a dog). I want to be a devoted husband. I want to keep my home maintained, the bills paid, and my family doted upon. I want to be great in all those roles. But then I don’t want any other roles. I don’t want to be the guy anybody else counts on for any daily—or even weekly—needs. Quite simply, I would rather give that time and energy to myself.
That sounds really selfish as I write it, giving me a twinge of guilt and making me wonder if I have somehow taken a wrong turn from my basic humanity. But the pause is brief, the guilt fleeting. Through journal entries and endless hours of pondering over the course of a lifetime, I know who I am and what works for my energy supply. I am clear about my needs, and all of my senses are fine-tuned to detect when things become even slightly off-balance.
I have a serious thing with BOUNDARIES. If I meet someone whose energies do not match up with mine—I don’t even have to know exactly why; I go with the feeling—I do not allow them any room in my world. Similarly, I fiercely protect my time. If I am told going into a job that I am required to be there exactly these days at these times, I am a loyal and committed soldier. But the moment they start saying, “No, we actually need you to come in more often and at different times than we agreed to,” my loyalty and enthusiasm go right out the window. Don’t mess with my time. Every single minute of it is precious to me.
I can see that this fierce guardianship of my time and energy is behind my unwillingness to add more deep, long-term responsibilities in the form of offspring or pets or spouses [I know it is not exactly the same line of thinking—because believe me, my wife does not need me to take care of her–but I would lump a spouse in with kids and pets here. If my wife finds some trick to be rid of me along the way, I cannot imagine myself wanting to get married or otherwise legally bound to someone again. I will happily take this commitment to the end, but then I’m good.]. I know that there are still things I want to do in my life. There are places I want to travel, things I want to write, and solitude I want to bask in. These are daydreams that don’t involve responsibilities and obligations to others. I don’t want to have to worry about finding places where my dog can stay in the room or campsite with me, or all of the logistical adjustments I have to make in order to travel with kids. And I don’t want to feel the guilt about leaving the dog or the kids with other people and both missing out on what they are doing and hating that they are missing out on the memories I am making without them. I don’t want any of that baggage. I want some freedom. Freedom while I am still young enough to enjoy it and make something out of it.
I think about all of the childless-by-choice adults and the way people tend to think about them. We like to think they are selfish or, at the least, just not wise enough to understand what they are missing out on. They don’t get it. Unlike those of us who have chosen to be parents, these self-centered hedonists can’t wrap their minds around the magical equation that, despite all of the diapers, tantrums, sleep-deprivation, financial drain, time drain, headaches, heartaches, and stress that children bring (in a single day even, but also all through life), despite all of that, kids still somehow come out on the plus side of Life’s ledger and make every day with them worthwhile. If only these egotists could understand that, they would do the right thing and procreate, like us. After judging them, we come to feel bad for them, sentenced as they are to a life of relative emptiness. I think dog owners carry some of that sentiment for those of too short-sighted to get a dog or too uncommitted and therefore settle upon a love-withholding feline. I understand where they are coming from; there is no love and loyalty quite like a dog’s for its owner. We should want that for others, right?
This is why I have to fight off the internal nudge to feel bad about myself for not wanting a dog (or, at one point, more kids). Not because I don’t know how much more rich and rewarding life can be through our relationships with those we take responsibility for, but because I do.
I think it speaks to the strength of my boundaries and the strength of my conviction about what is truly essential for my unique journey through Life. I know not only some of the things I want to do, but perhaps more importantly, I know how I want to feel.
I want to feel free. Unburdened. Unencumbered. Unfettered. Unchecked. Unbound. Free.
Not now. Now I want this deep dive into my kids’ world and all of the magic and fulfillment that complete investment in others’ lives brings. But later on, when that passes, then I want the unburdening, the liberation from responsibility, and a re-investment in my own life and the part of my path that meanders away from the others.
After the blessings of this golden age of parenthood move on, I will be eager to get back to my old priorities from my twenties—self-improvement work in the physical, emotional, and spiritual realms—as well as the many new ventures and adventures I have been dreaming of in these last many years of responsibility. I want to travel more, and more spontaneously. I want to read and write more. I want my “free time” to actually be free. It is not that I want to abandon people (and pets) altogether—though I have my moments—but rather just the responsibility for them.
I like the idea of having a few distinct stages of my life’s journey, with different governing philosophies for each. I understand that it is all one flow, but I appreciate that the map of my journey shows clear forks in the road, with my chosen path obvious from the historical record, but with the paths untaken also clear from what I consciously gave up to follow the ones taken. I hope it continues that way. All lives can look that way if examined closely enough, but this one is mine, and because I have journaled all the way through it, I have been keenly aware of its contours as I have co-created them with the Universe. I love to read, listen to, or watch a good life story. There is nothing more fascinating or entertaining to me. I hope that if I keep my priorities and my boundaries tight and clear, that my story will someday be one that I enjoy watching in the rearview mirror. I hope that I will have loved and cared for others long enough and deep enough in my “responsibility years” that I will have no regrets about staking such a firm claim upon my “freedom years.” From this position midway through, I would say it all looks pretty darn beautiful.
How about you? How do you see the responsibilities and commitments you have taken on in life? Open up your journal and be honest with yourself. What feelings arise when you think about the characters (both human and animal) that you claimed responsibility for in this world? Whether you are in the midst of your biggest commitments (e.g. to young children, to employees, to dogs) or are looking back on them, what is your range of feelings? How much love do they fill you with? How much pride? Do they inspire you to be better and uplift you in your darker moments? How much humor do they provide you with? Have you found a certain freedom within those responsibilities (I think of the Indigo Girls line from Power of Two: “The closer I’m bound in love to you, the closer I am to free.”)? Do your responsibilities provide the foundation for your life, an emotional home base? In the end, are the people you are or have been responsible for the true meaning of life? What would your life be like without those you are responsible for? On the other end of the emotional spectrum, how heavy is the weight of your responsibility? How much stress do your obligations bring you? To what degree do they dictate your happiness and overall well-being? Does that seem healthy to you? How often do you feel hints (or torrents) of bitterness or resentment toward those you are responsible for because of the weight of that responsibility? Is the resentment fleeting or lasting? Do you ever wish you had not made these enormous commitments? What do you do with that feeling? How much different is a spouse/life partner relationship than that of children and pets when it comes to providing meaning to a life? What does having one another’s back mean compared to being truly responsible for another’s well-being? Is it the difference of being responsible to and responsible for? Which type of responsibility suits your personality better? Are you able to see your life in specific chapters or seasons, defined in large part by your responsibilities at the time? Do they tend to be good and bad in different ways but hard to evaluate overall in terms of what you liked better or what you would prefer to happen in your upcoming chapters, or is it very clear to you that your next chapter(s) should be defined one way or the other? Will you steer your next chapter toward or away from responsibility and commitments to others? If you want to spend more time and energy on yourself, do you feel any guilt about that? Are you satisfied with how much you have done for others in your lifetime? Would you choose the same commitments again if you had a chance to live it all over again? Would you go with more or fewer? What is the best thing you can do for yourself going forward? How do you wish to feel in your next chapter? How is that different than the other eras of your adulthood? What will you carry with you from your current obligations? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you view your responsibilities?
Make it All beautiful,
P.S. If this one resonated with you, please share it with your community. We are One!
P.P.S. If this combination of introspection and storytelling appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.