DRMacIver's Notebook

There is no moral obligation to be exhausted

There is no moral obligation to be exhausted

Card Draw: The Five of Swords.

The Five of Swords is about self-interest. Society tells us to think of others, yet we resist. How we can ignore our own concerns and still survive? This dilemma comes from our definition of self. If we view our self as our personality/body, our interests become those that relate to that self. Do I have enough to eat? Am I happy? Do I have all I want?

Entirely coincidentally, I had a Twitter thread about self-interest yesterday:

Taking care of yourself is not selfish but is in fact essential for taking care of others. A thread of resources on this subject for as and when I find or remember them.

Being an example to others (by me): https://drmaciver.com/2019/09/being-an-example-to-others/ If you take care of yourself then others around you will treat that as permission to take care of themselves.

The Unit of Caring on boundaries: https://theunitofcaring.tumblr.com/post/113029185206/a-meditation-on-boundaries

Enforcing your own boundaries around what you want is good because it means that others around you don’t have to constantly second guess your needs to avoid hurting you.

If you do not prioritise your own recovery, the needs of those around you who are also recovering will burn you right back out. If everyone does this, nobody recovers.


This doesn’t perfectly match the card, but definitely overlaps with it.

Further card description:

We may expand our concern to those we love, but, then, how can we stop there? We are connected to everyone in the long run. In truth, our self is the world. What we do to that world, we do to ourselves. This understanding is so basic, but so infuriatingly easy to forget day-to-day.

In readings, the Five of Swords can mean that you or someone else is forgetting this larger view of self. You are defining your interests too narrowly. If you try to get ahead in isolation, your actions will come back to haunt you later, one way or the other.

Sometimes this card implies a need to put your own interests first. If you are being abused or taken advantage of, you must get free. If you are worn out by demands, take care of yourself. If it is your turn, step forward and claim your due. Just be aware that if you hurt others in the process, your victory will not feel complete.

I’m not yet quite sure what to do with this, so I decided to elaborate by drawing another card and got the Four of Swords. Rest, Contemplation, Quiet Preparation.

This leads to a clear prompt I think, which is the need to conserve your own energy rather than spending all of it on others.

Years ago, a friend made what I thought was an execellent point: If you have norms that you can only assert needs, not desires, then what you end up with is a social system that skirts the edge of disaster in a specific way: Everyone is constantly, but not quite, on the edge of breaking. When you break, you are allowed to assert your needs, when you are not broken you are not “allowed” to say no.

As with other forms of skirting the edge of disaster, the solution is to move the edge. Whatever point we want people to typically be at is the point at which we need to be able to say no to more demands. If we want people to not be permanently exhausted, we need to be able to say no to demands before we become exhausted.

From Kelsey’s article on boundaries:

Back when I thought I was straight I would go on dates with boys. The boys would usually want to kiss me. I disliked kissing, but I thought that their preferences deserved to count as much as mine, and I reasoned that they probably liked kissing more than I disliked kissing. So kissing was a morally good thing to do. I also reasoned that if I told them I disliked the kissing then they’d feel guilty and enjoy it less. So I did not tell them.

I am certain I was making some kind of critical error but it has taken me a long time to figure out what it might be.

I think one could easily translate this into spending energy on someone else: Often they will be more in need than you, so it feels internally valid to think that you should spend your energy on them because their need outweighs your need to not be exhausted. Even telling them that you are exhausted feels bad, because it is a violation of ring theory.

But in fact, this is a bad norm. As well as leaving you burned out and exhausted, it will also cause the people who love you to be unwilling to ask you for help, because they cannot trust you to prioritise your own needs.

I’m going to try something experimental and take a random passage from a book I haven’t read yet, which is “When I say no, I feel guilty” (Vathy recommended it a while back but I’ve only recently admitted that I will not read it as an ebook and acquired a physical copy).

I randomly selected page 231, which has the following dialogue between you and your hypothetical coworker, Harry:

HARRY: Boy, am I glad to see you! I got a real problem and I was afraid I couldn’t get anyone to help me out.

YOU: What’s the problem?

HARRY: I need to use your car this afternoon.

YOU: Umm. That is a problem, but I don’t want to lend out my car this afternoon.

HARRY: Why not?

YOU: I agree you need it, but I just don’t want to lend out my car this afternoon.

HARRY: Do you have someplace to go?

YOU: I may want it myself, Harry.

HARRY: When do you need it? I’ll get it back on time.

YOU: I’m sure you would, but I just don’t want to lend out my car today.

HARRY: Whenever I asked to borrow your car, you always lent it to me before.

YOU: That’s true, I did, didn’t I?

HARRY: Why won’t you lend it to me today? I always took care of it before.

YOU: That’s true, Harry, and I can see you’re in a jam, but I just don’t want to lend my car out today.

I think this kind of boundary asserting behaviour is one that is very good to be able to do. It feels a bit selfish, but selfishness is important if we’re to be able to hold on to more than the bare essentials that we need. When people ask you to spend your energy on them, you have to be able to say no.

quatoria argued in her thread that survivor communities tend to burn each other out:

and I implore other experienced survivors out there, who are just beginning the process of real recovery, of actual healing - BE CAREFUL with how you spend your time and energy, because so often one of us begins to heal and the overwhelming need around us drives us to burn out

And this inability to assert your energetic boundaries is a large part of this. Recovery is treated as an obligation to help others recover, but if you do this too soon then the relationships formed around recovery are not growth relationships but instead a crab bucket:

“She reached down and picked a crab out of a bucket. As it came up it turned out that three more were hanging on to it.”A crab necklace?” giggled Juliet.

“Oh, that’s crabs for you,” said Verity, disentangling the ones who had hitched a ride. “thick as planks, the lot of them. That’s why you can keep them in a bucket without a lid. Any that tries to get out gets pulled back. Yes, as thick as planks.”

In “Rewriting the Rules” MJB elaborates on the crab bucket metaphor:

Probably the main thing which prevents us from rewriting our rules is the crab bucket. The other crabs pull us back into the bucket if we show any sign of leaving, and the comfortable cosiness we find in the bucket means we’re unlikely to go over the top on our own.

As Terry Pratchett, and the philosopher Michel Foucault, both point out, these days the crab bucket is rarely policed with a mallet. In most arenas it’s not that we’ll be hit over the head if we leave the bucket, as we would, for example, if we were LGBT in one of the coutnries which still consider that to be a crime. Rather, the crab bucket is policed by our own self-monitoring as we compare ourselves against each other, and try hard to be normal like everyone else - the other crabs. It’s policed by the disapproval we fear because it’ll reinforce our belief that we’re really not okay. It’s policed by ridicule, shame, and the fear of standing out from the crowd and being exposed as freakish, weird, or different.

I think prioritising the energetic needs is another way the crab bucket is policed: If you are not able to prioritise your own need to recover and conserve your energy over the needs of those around you, you will be permanently dragged back into the bucket by the fact that there are far more people in your circle of concern than you can possibly manage to save.

This is another form of the social obligation to be bad at things. Doing better than those around you feels bad, so it becomes impossible to be good at things because as you try to improve you feel the obligation to drag the entire bucket of crabs up with you, which is far beyond your current strength. In fact, you would often do better by first escaping the bucket, and then helping the other crabs out of it one by one. By feeling overly beholden to the needs of others, we create a scenario where we are permanently vaguely miserable, and we also limit our ability to actually help others.

I wrote previously about the difference between morally obligatory and morally virtuous, which I think is illuminating here: Helping another person is morally virtuous, but in many cases we treat it as morally obligatory, as something that we have to do if we can.

In fact, however, it may not even be morally virtuous, because it universalises poorly. A moral norm where everyone puts their own oxygen mask on first is one where we can create communities in which people heal and prosper together, because it creates a communal path out of the crab bucket, one where people are able to be not just okay but actively happy, and then to pull others up after them.