I have referred to the concept of duty before as faithfully doing what is in front of you that needs doing. Elizabeth Elliot says, as advice to overwhelmed mothers, "Do the next thing." This usually involves something mundane and unexciting, like making sure the house is picked up, holding the crying baby, or going to bed at a decent hour rather than staying up enjoying "me time" and then being too tired the next day to do one's duty as well as could be done. (Why yes, I am preaching to the choir here. How observant of you.) Remembering one's duty is a safeguard against taking on things that we are not supposed to do, because those things conflict with what is clearly our primary duty.
Now, I would venture that not all of us are as ambitious as Jen. We may not be tempted to abandon our duty in pursuit of greater holiness. But we abandon our duty all the same. Sometimes it's in pursuit of comfort. Or happiness. Or because we resent the work we need to do. Often it's because we don't believe that what we are doing has any intrinsic worth. A dear friend of mine asked this weekend, "How can cleaning up an endlessly messy house be any thing other than frustrating and tiresome?" (Or something close, I don't remember her exact words.)
Or when we do do our duty, we resent it. We indulge in angry and bitter thoughts as we go about our tasks, and we live for the moment when we can get away from it all.
Then we wonder why we are unhappy; why every break leaves us, not refreshed, but craving more breaks, resenting even more the duty in front of us. We neglect the house in order to "rest and recover" from a late night of web surfing. We nap at work in order to recover from a late night out. We turn in shoddy workmanship at school because we wanted to hang out with friends instead of study. And we find ourselves frustrated, and stressed, and depressed.
It's because we are neglecting our duties. It's because we don't believe that doing our duty matters. Especially us mothers. Everything around us screams, "You are wasting your time and your life!" Some don't know what this feels like and that's wonderful. But most mothers know what I'm talking about.
What was the point of my education when all I'm doing is wiping butts day after day?
Anyone could clean a house. Yet why do I find it so difficult to keep it clean?
I'm too smart to pick up after people who speak in grunts all day long.
I should be spending my time and energy doing something about the injustices of the world, rather than reading story books to a few privileged children.
Jen hits at the crux of the issue with this sentence.
I've found rest and peace in the knowledge that what God wants first and foremost is that I simply, lovingly fulfill the basic duties he's set in front of me as a wife and a mother.
The key to being happy in our roles is to trust that what we are doing matters. But that means understanding life from a perspective that isn't found much in modern culture. It's the idea that relationships matter more than accomplishments. That serving others is an act of love. That people are more important than things or tasks. At the end of our lives what will matter is how well we loved God and each other.
Jen also had this to say.
Too often I've insisted on forcing through my plans for holiness at the expense of my duties -- and almost every time all those big plans end up fizzling in front of me, leaving me in a worse place than where I started. Yet on the occasions that I've managed to be obedient to my duties first, it's been stunning to see how God has opened one unlikely door after another to allow me to fulfill those desires within the constraints of my vocation.In my experience it is the same with whatever I am seeking; happiness, peace, fulfillment, contentment. The path toward those good things lies through embracing and submitting myself joyfully to the duties I have before me and doing it with all my heart. The more I squirm and try to wriggle around them, the more miserable I become.
Faithfulness is the path through, and gratitude, I think, is the path to finding joy in those things that we have previously resented. If we can make a beginning in these two things, with the grace of God, the rest will follow.
to clarify: I'm not advocating working and serving to the point of neglecting one's own needs and health. I'm talking about balance, but that's for another post. Most often we are out of balance in the opposite direction I think.