The Lie that Motivates Us

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Countless people go through life grumpy, depressed or with a massive chip on their shoulder. If you or someone you know seems to live perpetually on the edge of blowing up or lashing out then this post is for you.

It’s like a low-grade fever that heats up right below the surface of our lives. That thing that is grating upon us is deeper than what is in our purview, and in order to change it, we have to deconstruct things a bit.

Many people attribute this malaise or discontent to bad circumstances or being too busy. Life has become like digging a hole in the sand; take one scoop out and the everything sloughs off the perimeter to fill in the void. If we live in this hole, we perceive our efforts as fruitless and it introduces hopelessness into the equation. Even proactive efforts are diminished by life collapsing around us. Is it any wonder we seek anything that will anesthetize us to this reality?

Most solutions are only surface solutions. Most only examine the circumstances and the burdens of our life. If we determine these to be binding obligations, then the solution is to cope with what cannot change.

There is another way, but the masses don’t follow it, so it remains counter intuitive and hidden in plain sight.  Below the surface of our discontent lies the motivations that created our circumstances. These motivations reveal how we got stuck and offer us an unusual, constricted path to freedom (Matthew 7:13-14). Be warned, when I reveal this, you will diminish it as powerless nonsense. Our ego and pride hates this option and would prefer a miserable existence to liberation.

Our lack of freedom produces a powerful self-pity enabling our pride to lash out and blame everything that isn’t delivering us to satisfaction. Our score-card thinking ensures that no one else suffers like we do and thus we validate our identity as a martyr and parade it around like it was noble. The Hebrews call this a loss of Shalom, or the absence of peace and well-being. This is the idea behind a living Hell.

We are all born to different circumstances; some dire, some optimal. Psychology tells us that our circumstances today are a result of yesterday’s choices. I don’t disagree, but we can go deeper. When we make a choice, it’s consequences germinate into what we call life. Making good choices is all but impossible if we are not able to access the spiritual reality of the motivations beyond them.

The most clever lie of which I’m aware is that “Love obligates us.”  We all buy into this on some level. It’s a lie that preys upon our pride and sense of duty. We believe this lie and it puffs us up inside and makes us feel better than others because we are “laying it down” or “sucking it up”. Duty feels so good to the ego. This lie helps us do some wonderful things and tremendous acts of goodness, while it simultaneously creates a scorecard in the backdrop of our mind. It makes us the worst kind of good people who keep track of our efforts but fail to see how it cuts both ways. It’s fruit is the fear of missing out (FOMO).

The truth is that obligation is never motivated by love. Love compels us, it doesn’t obligate us. When love is motivating us, service is not a burden. When love serves, freedom is not lost elsewhere, but gained everywhere. Love recognizes that everything belongs and it easily reframes everything into goodness. Love surrenders all outcomes happily (1 Corinthians 13:3). Marriages, parenting, caregiving, vocations and charity becomes drudgery when obligation subtly replaces compulsion.

I warned you that you wouldn’t like this. The reason we reject this is because we can immediately recognize all the implications of the truth. It’s painful to realize that we do very little out of love especially with those for whom loving should come easy. It stings to discover our good isn’t that good. Sure we can convince ourselves that we are good people, upstanding citizens, and overall good chaps, but its sad when we sober up and realize we know very little about love. Our version of it is so shallow compared to God’s.

Digging out is easy and very hard. We are not just accountable for what we do. We are accountable for why we do it. Obligatory good deeds are just as poisonous to the soul as bad deeds. We must stay with this process of self criticism and exploration. This is the path of spirituality. Let’s ask ourselves why we do anything. If the motivation is love then we will be compelled to do it and we will live gratefully for any outcomes. If the motivation is anything other than love, we will never know peace. 

May we exchange the lie of obligation for the truth of compulsion and see everything change.