It’s natural for us all to look at decisions only from our own perspective. But the truth is our decisions impact people around us. This is something we need to always remember. I want to spend some time talking about this because I want you to understand that your life is about much more than just yourself.
From the moment we’re born, we are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews. As we grow older, we become friends, wives, husbands, colleagues and members of the wider human community. The easy option in life is to only think about ourselves when we make decisions. This is wrong in two ways: first because in the end it will do us more harm than good, and from a moral perspective because we have an obligation to others.
This obligation isn’t limited to just the few people we love directly. If you love — and the ability to love is one of the great privileges of our life — you must recognise the associated obligations. The greatest of these is to try not to hurt or harm those you love. Beyond our personal circle of loved ones, we all live in an extended community of our neighbours, townspeople, countrymen and ultimately fellow human beings.
Our wellbeing and happiness is contingent on theirs. After all, who wants to live in a town or a country or a world where everyone else is unhappy? We have an obligation to think about the impact of our decisions on those around us, both near and far.
This obligation presents one of the most difficult challenges in life — how to balance freedom with responsibility. As we go from being children to being adults, we become progressively freer to make our own decisions. When we are finally earning money does that mean we reach a point where we should do whatever we like? No, of course not. When you make decisions throughout your life you must think about how they will impact others as well as yourself.
When you reach the paradox of how to do what you want without being destructive to others, you’ll find it’s a hard balance to strike. There is no such thing as the perfect balance, but a combination of genuine self-awareness and awareness of others can produce the best outcome.
By self-awareness, I mean thinking deeply about what you really want. Don’t make decisions as a reaction to others. This is an easy trap to fall into, but if you really think about what you want you may be surprised by how often it appears your wants aren’t that different to those around you. This makes decisions easier to make.
However, if what you want is quite different to what loved ones want for you, what do you do then? Here, your analysis must become deeper and more sophisticated. We all have the right to live our lives as we choose, so it’s important to distinguish between what others want us to do and what will have a meaningful impact on their lives. Beyond this, we need consider what this impact will be.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that when you’ve graduated from secondary school, you need to decide where to go to university. Your preference is to go to university far away from where your family lives so you gain some independence and because you think you will enjoy it more. Your parents, on the other hand, want you to stay nearby and want you to stay in the same town. In this case, it’s totally justifiable for you to go with your own preference, because while this may upset your parents it doesn’t harm them. This is an important distinction.
On the other hand, there may be a situation where you want to go to a particular school that you can’t afford. Your parents could cover the cost only if they used their life savings. While your parents may think that they would rather invest in your future than have a safety net for their old age, it’s your responsibility to think about this long and hard. Make sure this is the right decision for everyone concerned.
You may resolve the issue yourself by promising them that you will provide for your parents in their old age. Whatever your decisions, it’s important to recognise that sometimes what we want most for ourselves can come at a cost to others. Responsibilities may often seem like a pain and often are, but they represent one of the most beautiful aspects of being alive — our relationship with others. A life without responsibility is a lonely life. To be dependent on others and to have others dependent on you is a privilege.
There is a fundamental difference between doing things for ourselves and doing them for others. Both are necessary and neither should be absent from your life. The sense of fulfilment we get from doing things for others and the ensuing love and appreciation we receive are like flowers blossoming in your own personal garden. The more you do for others, the more flowers bloom and one day you’ll wake up and discover your garden is a riotous full bloom of colour and love. A life lived solely for the gratification of oneself leaves the garden dry and barren.
Sometimes, what you do for others is easy and costs you little. But sometimes it means sacrifice. This can be hard to accept but it’s this sacrifice that makes your actions more special and noble. Sacrifice is evidence of our ability to see and consider life as something beyond ourselves. Sacrifice is love’s evidence in our beings and a declaration of our conviction that there is no greater prerogative in life than love.