Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

The Surprising Comfort of Obligations

My mother called me at work last week to let me know that a local relative, the
wife of my father's cousin Bob, had died the previous day. Bob and his wife Jan
were my only relatives in Minnesota; they welcomed me when I moved here and they
came to several of my band concerts over the years. I see them whenever my parents
come out to visit, and I always thought I should make more of a point to see them
otherwise; I enjoyed the time I spent with them and they certainly made it clear
that they would be happy to see more of me.

The news was not a shocking surprise, although it was certainly very sad. There
are many thoughts that this yields, about the funeral and about family and about
what it means to spend time with relatives you don't know but who look like you
and who hold stories about your father and grandparents, but that's not what
I'm thinking about right now, a week after the funeral. What I'm thinking about
is the notion of obligation, and how that can be a very good thing.

When my mother told me the news I asked if she happened to know anything about
funeral arrangements. Yes, in fact, she did, and she gave me a time and the name
of a synagogue. I started to say something about trying to make it and she said
something about how that would be good and then I came to my senses and realized
with certainty (and said out loud), "Of course I'm going to the funeral." What had
been going through my head, as an immediate response, was "Oh, I'm moving offices
tomorrow, gee I don't know that I can take the day off" and as soon as that thought
formed its absolute absurdity struck me. I told my mother that this had been my first
thought, and she said yes, you often respond to news like this with a sudden concern
about logistical details until the emotional impact hits.

After hanging up I realized that my mother would never say to me "You must attend
the funeral" but she was probably going to stay on the phone until I came to that
realization for myself. Fortunately this took less time then it does to describe.
It's not just that I had to attend the funeral because of my own connection to my
father's cousin, but I also had to attend the funeral to represent my parents.
In fact, I was the one relative in town. Bob's brother and sister and their families
came on a day's notice from great distances, but no other of the many cousins
would be able to be there.

I didn't just attend the funeral and the burial -- I was definitely part of
the family sitting shiva that night. It seemed natural for me to stay until all
the visitors had left, and to talk with my previously-unknown second cousins
about their own grandmother (Bob's mother, whom I had known in her last years, when
she lived in Minnesota as well). I talked with my father's cousins and heard family
stories and had much to report back to my parents.

A few days later, on Sunday morning, I was with some of the folks I sing with
regularly on Sunday evenings, and I told them I wouldn't be there that night
because I was going to the U. Utah Phillips concert. I noted that I had something
of an obligation to go to the concert, because of the family connections and history
with Utah (whom I know as Bruce). My parents would want me to be there, and to
give their regards.

That was twice in one week that I found myself considering obligations -- in
this case family obligations -- in determining what choices I made. The
situations were quite different, but I was struck by the connection. It's not
just family obligations I feel. I have obligations that come along with being
part of a Morris Team, or being part of the Police Band or the Freedom Band,
or being part of the local group of shape-note singers. I feel these obligations
strongly and I take them very seriously.

These are obligations, yes, but they don't feel like burdens. I know many people
whose spin on these situations would be different from mine. They would resent or
deny the obligations. But to me these obligations make me feel networked. I feel
part of the world and communities that surround me. I think that my life would
be impoverished if I didn't have these obligations.

Perhaps I've just internalized the concept of "mitzvah". A mitzvah is a command or
obligation, and it is also a good deed. It is a good deed that brings a deep
pleasure not only for you but for the people who care about you. A mitzvah is an
obligation, yes, but without a burdensome connotation.

Sometimes I feel that I am pulled in too many directions. But I never feel
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