If you are living out of a sense of obligation you are a slave.
-- Wayne Dyer
You might think, after you read what I'm about to share, that I am a horrible person. But we cannot live our lives in fear of judgment and, however terrible the truth may be, it is the truth, and all truth is indifferent. So I reserve even my own opinion of myself as I admit that, at 7:30 p.m. on a warm Thursday evening three weeks ago, it took nearly five full seconds for me to remember that my grandfather was alive. I was standing on the sidewalk outside of the gallery showing David's work in New York's artsy neighborhood of Chelsea, taking a break from the throng of free-wine-loving-art-gawkers, when my cousin Cyndi asked, "Are you going to visit Pop Pop while you're here?"
For five seconds, the only response she received was my blank stare. Then, "Pop Pop? No, no, I wasn't planning on it. I mean, I'm only in town for a few days; there's really no time." Remembering Cyndi's super X-ray power of seeing through bullshit, I added, "And there are a zillion things I'd rather do on this coast than trek an hour to Jersey to spend a day with a nice old guy I hardly know."
We've all felt this way before; there is someone in each of our lives -- a distant relative, a tangential acquaintance, a vague coworker -- to whom we do not feel close and therefore do not wish to make a priority in our lives. When we do prioritize these people, it is because we feel obligated to do so -- obligated by society (I'm supposed to visit this person), obligated by others with whom we are close ( someone wants me to visit this person because this person is important to that someone).
I last saw my only living grandparent four years ago, when he came to San Diego to visit with his daughter, my mother. As we sat in Mom's living room, I imagined the glisten in my grandfather's eyes was made from pain and longing. He sat in silence, a sad smile on his face, and stared at us as we spoke, the girls he didn't get to watch grow up.
When I drove down to Mom's house earlier that day, I wasn't prepared for the mountain of emotion behind those old eyes. The only reason I showed up at all was because of the potential drama I would face if I declined the invitation for dinner with the family. Because she'd moved 3000 miles away from her parents, my mother felt guilty for their absence in our lives, though she needn't have -- if my grandparents had been truly interested in the lives of their granddaughters, they would have found a way to forge those bonds, which require more than annual, oblig-
atory birthday cards.
I have all the respect for my grandfather that is due my one-step-removed creator, though I feel no need to try and bond with him or fake an intimate sort of granddaughter-like love. When I search within myself and attempt to name the emotions I feel toward him, I come up with the same feelings I have when I see an old person at a bus stop: Here is this old person, and he seems sad and alone, and I wonder about all of the hardships he's suffered; I wonder if he was ever able to appreciate moments of pure joy. I feel tugs of sympathy when I look at his face, eyes distant, head cast down, someone who seems to be carrying out the rest of his sentence on this earth rather than joyfully soaking in the last few minutes of recess.
When I see an old man at a bus stop, I try to read the contours of his face; I look for a spark of light, a hint of wisdom, or even a smile. If I see these things, I hope to be that lucky when I get old, and then I wonder about all of the life-lessons I could learn from that one, knowing, little spark. But when I do not see it, when my search ends with that faraway look, that lugubrious stare, I am sad for him in the way you are sad for a bird with a broken wing. This is how I feel about my grandfather; when I see him, he is as strange and puzzling to me as any of those aged creatures adorning the streets where I live. The only difference is I embrace him in a hug before I tear my gaze away to think of other things.
We're not supposed to feel this way about our family members, and we're certainly not supposed to admit that we think these things, but we do, we have, and if I hear someone say she hasn't, I am sure she is lying. Too often our actions are based on what we feel we are "expected" to do, and not what we "want" to do. This line of thinking is detrimental to our happiness and, more importantly, to our ability to be honest with others and ourselves. There are plenty of distant relatives with whom I feel a strong connection that I want to prioritize -- I would rather spend my time with these people than pretend to enjoy the company of someone with whom I'm "supposed" to feel a connection.
I once worked with a woman I detested on so many levels that her voice alone could give me stomach cramps. One morning, after she'd been out for a few days, I was told the woman was in the hospital and that I should sign the get-well card circulating through the office. I deftly avoided the card at every turn and, noting it had gone out without my signature, a "thoughtful" coworker suggested I send a separate card to express my well wishes.
I struggled with guilt until I told myself, Nothing has changed that would make me suddenly like this person. Does someone's illness make him or her more likeable? No. Should I pretend to like her because that's what everyone else is doing? No. Does this make me a bad person? No! It makes me consistent.
My other coworkers, people who constantly bitched about the ill woman, poured out their false sentiments in writing, and some even went to visit her. If I were sick, the last people I would want to see would be those who visit out of some kind of obligatory guilt. It's the same when someone you didn't care for dies -- sure, you feel bad for their family because you're not heartless, and you may question your own mortality and be struck by the cruel randomness of life. But death does not make one a better person; it just makes one no more. Sickness did not make my coworker more likeable; it just made her ill.
I try to resist being swayed by the expectations of others and the temptation of feeling obligated to do what other people think I should do. Instead, I work on doing what I feel is right. It all comes down to this: Mine is the only life I get to lead, and I intend on leading it. This doesn't make me horrible, it doesn't make me cold or ruthless -- it makes me honest.