Duty vs Self-Interest

January 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

I seem to have a lot of questions lately, complex nubs of thought that I have no answers to and am nowhere close to finding resolution. The root of all this questioning comes from the concept of “duty”, a notion that arose frequently on my trip to Mysore. It wasn’t an obvious, in-your-face type of encounter, rather they arose as part of broader conversations. When Sharath quotes from the Bhagavad Gita in conference, for example. Or when talking about the actions I need to take to resolve prickly emotional issues. I re-discovered how the whole notion of duty is pretty big in Indian – and Asian – culture. The concept that you’re born into this web of relationships and social responsibilities, that certain things are expected of you (to care for your parents as they age, for example), and that some things are just not done (like moving in with your partner before marriage).

The trip showed me that fulfilling one’s “duty” in life – to family, friends, jobs, etc – has its value and its place, and it’s not just a slog of “shoulds” and “should nots”. It’s helped me to better accept the fact it would be unwise to stay in Gokulam indefinitely, that Silicon Valley is where my life is and will be for the forseeable future (despite my reservations about this place), that my duty is to put in the work where needed and not to waffle on “what ifs” and hypothetical scenarios of doom. In other words, my armor towards the “shoulds” and “should nots” I was raised with is starting to soften. Because of my Western-oriented education supplemented by American TV shows, the cultural divide between my parents and me was enough justification for ditching cultural mores (“old-fashioned”) in favor of self-interest (“this is how we do things today”). The folly of youth. What I didn’t realize is that this rebellion wasn’t just a ‘phase’ shaped by one too many episodes of Beverly Hills 90210. It came from a place far darker and deeper, one that I’m starting to dissect. I get that we all have a duty to fulfill in our life, whether its something glamorous like finding the cure for cancer, or quotidian, like caring for your spouse/kids/parents. I find it meaningful to have a sense of duty, to realize that you’re a part of a web of relationships and responsbilities that support your sense of self in the world.

But the big question is – where does duty end and self-interest/self-preservation begin in a relationship? Specifically, when one is in a relationship that has proven to be filled with guilt and a lot of pain, pain to the point of impacting upon your self-worth, and yet it is one of the key relationships that you cannot just ditch and walk away – what do you do then? Do you stick it out and fulfill your ‘duty’ even if your sense of self is being whittled away every day? Where does one draw the line? Is there even a line to be drawn in the first place?


Content that’s triggered/nudged the thought process along:



§ 3 Responses to Duty vs Self-Interest

  • mariavlong says:

    I hope this answer does not come across as too simplistic or thoughtless. In my experience the passage of time eventually delivers a period where you can be extremely generous with those who have demanded much from you simply because you can at that time afford what they need from you. You cannot give what you do not have. It takes quite awhile to collect/save all that energy and patience which is being constantly demanded. They are going to have to wait!

    • D says:

      No it doesn’t. “You cannot give what you do not have” is a wise mantra to repeat to oneself, especially when it comes to energy and patience! Thanks Maria.

  • I think self-interest is a subset of duty. Duty is society’s reaction to survival, to preservation. Most society’s that have decided to cast away with duty have realized what the word “rebellion” means. On the other hand, duty is always imposed. I think this article could interest you. http://emekadavid-solvingit.blogspot.com/2013/01/2-ways-looking-out-for-others-interest.html. It is usually imposed on us because it costs us something, we have to give something to fulfill it. thanks

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