do we have to?

Last night around 8:30, I went to visit my mom.  Somewhere along the line, as we were chatting in her kitchen, I glanced over at the neon green LCD clock on her stove and thought, I need to go soon.  I still have to write today’s blog post.

I did not go soon.  I left after midnight, in fact.  And I did not write yesterday’s blog post.  As with other times I’ve told you about since beginning this blog, I chose real moments with people in the present over merely writing about past moments with them.  This was, of course, the right choice.

Yesterday, before I left to see my mom, I had a blog post open on my computer with the above image already in place.  The topic was originally slated to be something else, the title of which might have been “barrel of monkeys” or “not a laugh in the carload.”  However, when I returned home to find the unwritten post greeting me, the eyes of the somber folks staring back at me said a lot about have-to’s, as well.  And so, while the ideas and content that follows will have changed, the image remains.

It seems to me that such photographs would have us believe that the very souls of all who lived then – yea, even the entire world itself – were as sallow and cracked as the pictures that now represent the era.  What was it about having one’s picture taken that etched such looks onto people’s faces?  I’m not sure that I could even make a similar face convincingly, let alone hold it without laughing.  And I’ve got some acting ability.

We’ll never know what these people were thinking as they sat there … but that doesn’t stop me from having some fun with speculation.  I am mentally drawing thought bubbles on each member of the family.  Not all of the words they are speaking in my mind are proper enough to make the blog, so I’ll spare you for the most part.  But go ahead – take a minute to mentally formulate some captions of your own for them.  If you haven’t had a good laugh yet today, here’s your chance.

Among the curiosities is how one gets an infant to look as perfectly morose as the rest of the clan.  And the dear matron, center stage – if she were in fact living at the time the photo was taken, a matter which leaves me doubtful – strikes me as surely having mumbled loftily and in warbling tones not unlike a decrepit Queen Victoria, “We have agreed to sit for the portrait, but we are not amused!”

Here’s another image that I found particularly – interesting:

In the bizarre landscape that exists inside my head, he is some mind- controlling cult leader, gripping her wrist too firmly out of the camera’s view.  And she, not having been allowed to fuss with her voluminous garments in order to use the bathroom prior to sitting, is just now in the process of soiling herself.

It seems to me that we approach our lives with this dour attitude all too often even today.  It’s unfortunate how often we think in terms of what we have to do in life, instead of what we get to do, what we would like to do, what we are lucky enough to be able to do — or what we don’t need to do at all, if we really sat and thought about it:

“I have to pay these [blankety-blank] bills.”

You really don’t.  There will be consequences to this decision.  But, in reality, having bills means that we are fortunate enough to have luxuries most of the world not only goes without, but does not even realize exist.  You can downsize and simplify at any time.

“I have to go to work / go in early / stay late.”

Again, not so.  If you are employed, that is a choice you are making.  You could leave your current job, find a new one, or not work at all.  There are many homeless people I’ve met who willfully choose that lifestyle, finding it manageable and carefree.  And so, when offered help to “get on their feet,” they decline.

As for going in early or staying late, that is also a choice.  Yes, it may be uncomfortable to tell the boss no.  If you are the boss, it may be hard to tell yourself no, and to go home and be with your family.  It’s even possible that not agreeing to overtime might lose you your job.  But it is still a choice.  Keeping this in mind, I’ve found, makes anything bearable.  No one can make me do this; I’m choosing to go ahead with it.

“I’m going to have to have a talk with that young man!”

This one seems especially sad to me – that something as wonderful as conversation is so often reserved as a threat or punishment, a time for telling another person how disappointing we find them.  Meaningful conversations about things big or small should be ongoing, the norm –a privilege rather than a have-to.

“I really have to leave now.”

As so many of my friends can attest, “have to” is a myth when it comes to chatting or visiting.  We may say this many times as the hours tick on past midnight.  But the fact is that we don’t have to go at any particular time.  By choosing to spend more time together, we may be running the risk of feeling tired the next day.  But it is a choice all the same.

Regarding those we’d rather not be talking with, what we actually mean is “I’d really like to be free of this conversation right now.”  In the same vein as saying no, learning how to kindly but firmly extricate yourself from conversation is a skill worth developing.

Thinking in terms of  “have to” causes us to feel trapped.  In reality, we are not trapped.  We are choosing to stand there as opposed to the potential awkwardness of excusing ourselves.  Consider a smile and a simple “Hold that thought for later. It’s time for me to go now” – even if it needs to cut in on a non-stop talker.  No reason (real or fabricated) is required.  I always remind myself that this is not being rude.  Rather, the other person continuing to talk or monopolize a conversation is, if anything, the rude behavior; I’m merely addressing it as graciously as possible.

Concerning my thoughts during my visit with my mother last night, I really didn’t have to write a blog entry for the day.  Nor for any day.  There is no rule and no one twisting my arm.  That is a thought borne of my own tendencies toward perfectionism and performance.  Writing as regularly as I do is a choice.  Writing itself is a choice, period.

The truth is that, beyond certain biological functions and the most basic survival measures, there is precious little in our lives which we have to do (and even much of that can be debated).

When you begin to find yourself thinking in terms of have-to’s in your own life, step back and consider how much is actually within the realm of choice.  You will be happier and more at peace for it.

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