I was talking with one of my teachers the other day about how things are going, and how I still struggle with overcommitting, and with feeling like some of my life is taken up with duties and that this keeps me from feeling free.
Before I tell you about her response, I should say that I see a huge difference between duty and service. Service, for me, is reciprocal, being in conversation with another or in one's self, a fulfillment of love and recognition. I raise my children out of service, because I learn and grow from it just as they do. I do the laundry because it's pleasing to me to have clean clothes. I stay in touch with friends not because I have to but because it feels good to connect, to listen and be heard. All of those things are service, in my mind, because they are about relationship and mutual fulfillment.
Duty, on the other hand, is hollow. When I sign up for duty it is usually because there is some voice in my brain that says "if you don't do this, it will look like you are this," or "if you do this, you'll be seen as this." Duty is about externally projecting the thoughts of others back on to myself. It is about shoulds and have-tos, shame and guilt. It's about fracturing myself into a million tiny pieces and seeing where those pieces stick, and thinking approval or appreciation or love will come back in some form or another because I did my duty. Duty is exhausting and about anything but freedom.
Sadly for me, duty is often really alluring. My ego loves duty because it makes me feel wanted and important. I sign up for duty all the time, especially at work. Then I spend quite a bit of time feeling bummed or pissed that I "have" to do all this duty that I don't really want to do. See that? I sign up for the duty, then resent others for giving me duties. Hilarious.
As Nolie would say, "Duty is doodie! Bahahahahaha!"
Ah, the wisdom of babes.
Anyway, what my teacher said was this. "You need to understand the difference between excellence and genius. Excellence is fine, you know? It's about doing things well and on time and as you're supposed to. Excellence is a good thing to reach for. But its downside is perfectionism, and in the end, excellence can be quite limiting, constraining. It's not really what our souls want, this excellence for excellence's sake.
Genius, on the other hand, is about freedom. It's about yearning. It's about spontaneity and thinking differently, about laughter and joy and listening to Spirit. So, you might ask yourself which one it is you're wanting when you make your choices."
I say this most humbly. I don't think of myself as excellent or genius, either, most of the time. But I like this distinction, and think maybe we can let go of some of our preconceptions about what these words usually mean and think of them instead on a heart-level, as a guide for how we might live our lives.
On the morning walk with Milo I was listening to an old Fresh Air, where Terry Gross was interviewing Abbey Lincoln, a singer and actress who died in August. I kept having to stop on the walk and close my eyes to listen, because Lincoln just had so many amazing things to teach me. And her voice is gorgeous to listen to, anyway. The final story she told was of an interaction with Thelonius Monk, where he told her, "Don't be so perfect." And her husband Max Roach said, "Make a mistake." She said she didn't know what they meant.
Gross asked her if she knew what they meant now, and Lincoln laughed and said she did, and that what they meant was that if you really reach for it, really shoot for the moon, and your voice cracks, oh well, at least you shot for the moon. You can be safe and stay here on the ground--in duty, reaching for excellence--or you can shoot for it, take the risk of failure, and be guided by your spirit's instinct to genius.
She said it better than I, but you get the idea.
This is all high-falutin. I'm not quite sure how to translate it all into the daily. But it's on my mind anyway. Listen to the Abbey Lincoln interview if you have time. It's worth it.