Some years ago I had a work colleague called Pichai who lives in Thailand, and he felt an obligation to sweep the gravel at a Buddhist temple till his hands bled, in order to meet the requirements of compassion to allow his parents to be at peace…
The responsibility he felt caused physical harm, and it was ingrained into who he saw himself as. But was he responsible for other’s lives in this way? He is probably still sweeping….
What is the responsibility to our families? There is a social aspect of responsibility, what our acquaintances’ expectations are, and a personal aspect, what we believe we are personally responsible for.
We cannot change social expectations, but we can critically review them. For example, in the case of abuse, society may say “you must stand behind your family or spouse, no matter how they treat you”, but this is wrong. In the case of physical abuse, it is pretty clear that a husband beating a wife, for example, is totally wrong and unacceptable. But it is also no different if the family member (father, wife, child, cousin or whoever) is intimidating. One story I heard was a guy who threatened his wife with a shotgun, that he would blow her head off unless she did what he wanted. When she took this example to a counsellor, the guy said “yeah, but it wasn’t loaded”.
Well in both law and common sense, clearly this is abuse and assault.
Now as we slide along the scale from life-diminishing to life-enhancing behaviour, we come across lots of abuse that is less obvious, but may be equally damaging.
So when a family member screams in anger, or hits out in frustration, or strikes a child, this is sometimes treated as acceptable behaviour. It is not, ever, acceptable. A single instance may not be the direct reason to leave the relationship, e.g. for a child to leave home, for a wife to leave a marriage, but over time if this behaviour does not change, it will sap life from both the abuser and the abused.
Now what about further along the scale, where the behaviour is constant nagging, or calling to find out where your spouse is because of jealousy and mistrust, or just calling and texting so much that the recipient cannot even think clearly, yet feels obliged to listen and respond.
This is still diminishing of life, and over time will break the relationship, either directly, or indirectly.
I wrote this poem in 2005, also about sweeping – talking about the feelings of obligation and being swamped with social expectation.
“I dreamed of a verandah
Covered o’er with falling leaves
And so many sad-faced sweepers
Wielding brooms to keep it clean.
But the wind was blowing.
The wind was winning,
puffing back the leaves,
Blowing back the leaves.
Of futile activities.
I dreamed of the same people
Sitting in the leaves
Enjoying the breeze.”
Sweep life-sapping obligations away instead!