Who Owes Who What Now?

There are people who believe that the world owes them fairness, however one defines “fair.” Then there are people who feel sort of queasy and/or irritated at the notion that the world owes one anything. (Then there’s the reality of the people, most of us really, who fall between those extremes. But I digress.)

I’m one of the queasy types. Chalk it up as you will to nihilism, a conviction that true fairness is determined by an ineffable justice which surpasses my understanding, or resentment toward the self-actualization of others. All of these things may be true. Whatever the reason, I find it easier to tally up what I owe to others than to articulate what others owe to me. I also find it easier to be lenient with others than to be lenient with myself. In practice, this doesn’t so much govern my actual behavior as it governs what I feel guilty about.

My psychologist recently challenged me to define what I am owed. I spluttered indignantly about the world not owing anyone anything, then defaulted to access to food/clothing/shelter, then just sat there opening and closing my mouth. I owe it to myself to – to what?

I put the question out on social media, where I learned that I am owed a pedicure, wine, oxygen (please put on your own mask first before assisting others), a chance at happiness, and fresh blood (like the human heart, which must be fed in order to feed the rest of the organism). None of this is wrong (especially if I define the pedicure and vino/blood more broadly as self-nurture) and all of it is agreeable. What it doesn’t tell me is whether I am owed intellectual stimulation or adult companionship on a regular basis more than I karmically owe my physical presence and attention to family members. How much does a debt to myself weigh relative to a debt to my children or my husband? And what is a reasonable debt to oneself?

Let’s say that the purpose of human life is to glorify the Lord and celebrate His works. My faith life ranges between nihilism, a conviction that the mysteries of faith are ineffable and surpass my understanding, and uneasy fear that if I don’t just do what’s in my catechism, I’ll screw everything up for myself and everyone else in my attempts to freestyle. In practice, this doesn’t so much govern my actual behavior as it governs what I feel guilty about. Sound familiar? Well, what would He have me do once the boxes are all checked? He would have me forgive others; would He have me forgive myself when, go as I might though the motions of loving my neighbor as myself or not coveting her ass, I decide to quietly disengage from my neighbor* because she wants to take her side in a community association dispute where she’s wrong and the stress is making me pull my own hair out in my sleep? What about when I mute her on Facebook so as not to see more pictures of her ass patiently giving donkey rides to disadvantaged children while mine is kicking down the fence again?

*Not using this neighbor to represent any actual person, honestly. Really, I swear. If you own a donkey, I am totally happy for you, especially if it is good-natured enough to handle attention from kids. Sure, I would love to own livestock and land, but that is not the point. There is no neighbor. There is no ass. There is no community association.

Help me, imaginary friends on the internet.

I feel good about taking my biology class because I feel like it has practical value above and beyond my own pleasure in learning and because I feel like it does not unreasonably deprive my people of attention. I can’t find it in me to feel good about doing things that I know would significantly help my physical and emotional health without providing any tangible benefits to my helmets at home. How much personal growth and satisfaction do they owe me? It’s hardly as if they try to stop me from seeking it out, it’s just that they don’t actively want them on my behalf. (“And why should they?” chides a voice in my head.) In the case of the biology class, it took me telling Dino Spouse that I needed him to want it for me before I finally got off my duff and registered for the class. I’ve been wanting to take it for six or seven years now. Why did I need him to intervene before I could give myself permission to do it?

One thought on “Who Owes Who What Now?

  1. Great column! You have given us much to think about here. I think the whole ‘what are we owed?” question may be one that I am revisiting now that I can actually see the empty nest before me. For many years, I felt like there was so little of anything — energy, time, attention — left for me. I let myself go.

    I still feel guilty taking an hour and a half or so every day to go to the gym — but I think that actually I am owed some downtime, and that it’s not really selfish to take care of your physical body. It’s actually part of your duty — to yourself, to others, to God, etc. It’s kind of weird it took so long to figure that out, though . . .

    On the other hand, I’m leaving for a conference in New Orleans tomorrow and it pains me that already two of our participants have dropped out of the pre-conference workshop, and they’re both women, and they are both claiming that they can’t be there due to family responsibilities. Interestingly, none of the menfolk have had to drop out. Funny that . .


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