Obligation

I have never been very good at should. “You should finish your dinner”, “You should go to church”, and the overall gotcha ”You should be a good boy”.

Our heads are filed from an early stage with these shoulds yet paradoxically they actually make it harder to do the right thing. Filling our heads with other people’s voices makes it more difficult to hear our own. One of the attractions of Buddhist thinking is the idea that we practice stilling those other voices, allow what is really happening at any moment to be more fully grasped, and make our next move based on that information.

If this sounds like a recipe for an amoral free for all consider the situation where you are asked by a Nazi if anyone else is in the house and you know that Anne Frank and her family are hiding upstairs. You know the right thing to do. We all know the right thing to do. Even those brainwashed by Nazi propaganda know the right thing to do. In fact losing our ability to make our own decisions about what we know is the right thing to do is what gives ideologues and despots their power.

Guilt at telling a lie is unhelpful. Taking the time to work through other people’s ideas of what we should or should do is a distraction. For this good reason we break received moral codes all of the time.

If we can do it some of the time, if we can do it when it really matters, then maybe we should stop pretending that we don’t, get better at stilling the voices in our heads, and get better at doing what we know deep down is the right thing.