Discerning “Ought”

Another post from Lt. David Hostetler that is too good not to share. 

There isn’t much current TV that I watch these days, so if it isn’t sports I’m watching it’ll likely be re-runs on either Netflix or Amazon prime, and recently Presvytera Nora and I have been watching the old sitcom “Frasier” on Netflix. One of the long running themes of the show was Frasier’s brother Niles’ unrequited affection for their father’s live in therapist Daphne, an affection known only to his brother and father. At the conclusion of season 7, however, both Daphne and Niles admit their amorous love for one another, but only after Niles has recently married and on the eve of Daphne’s wedding to another man. What to do?

The dilemma made me think of the climax of the movie Casablanca, wherein Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick faces a similar dilemma with a married woman. They had been in love once—and seem to be again—she wants to stay with Rick rather than escaping with her husband to neutral Spain, but he won’t let her, saying she’d regret it, “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” They did the right thing, not what was easy, but what they ought to do.

I thought Niles and Daphne would also, since that is how the show and season ended, but the next season began with Daphne jilting her fiancé at the altar and Niles telling his new bride that he wants a divorce. They did what they wanted, what they thought would make them happy, not what they ought to have done.

Whether or not the span of time between the movie and the TV show, and the social changes during that time are to blame for the difference is impossible for me to tell, but I am certain that modern audiences could not fully appreciate what Rick and Ilsa did, and are more likely to understand and approve of Niles and Daphne’s decision. More and more these days, as we erode every common morality in favor of individuals’ self-determined ones, we become unable even to discern an “ought.” Rather we replace the “ought,” that ideal model for right thoughts, feelings, and actions, with the self, making our ultimate aim self-fulfillment, what makes me happy.

When the self replaces the ought we are unable to value properly the kind of work we do, so rather than find joy in the work at hand that must be done, we seek more “fulfilling” and “meaningful” work. In other words, work that pleases me and makes me proud to tell others what I do. It’s no longer sufficient to see work as a means to the ends of providing for one’s needs, work becomes an end in and of itself; we are what we do.

When the ought gives way to the self we also fail to evaluate our relationshipsproperly. Rather than offering ourselves to others, we seek relationships that feed our self-esteem and avoid those “difficult” people. Rather than doing the hard work of living in community, we isolate ourselves in enclaves of like-minded people and thank God we’re not like that man over there. We hide behind our phones and computer screens, refusing to stand face to face.

Until we recognize that there is a way we ought to act, and that our self is fulfilled only in relationship with God and others, then we will continue to confuse our desire, which is disordered by sin, with our need, which is constant. Self-denial used to be a cornerstone of Christian faith and practice, now it is done if we can fit it into our schedule. The 5k this weekend will make me feel better for doing something for others. But we need the other more than we need to feel good. And we need God more than we need our self. The cosmic irony is that we only becomefully ourselves when we surrender fully to Christ first. So, the next time we find ourselves confronted with a choice, the best question to ask is not “what do I want?” or “what feels right?” or “what makes me happy?” We should ask ourselves and each other, “What ought I to do?” “What is the right thing to do?” Only with our self in its proper, subordinate state can we have healthy relationships or be truly fulfilled. Several episodes later Niles and Daphne are still picking up the pieces of relationships broken by their selfish choice. Rick walked off camera with Renault saying, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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