I'm Just Saying…

July 26, 2014

Because I Have To…

A situation came up recently, one of those events that prompts a family discussion while strolling the aisles of Bed, Bath, and Beyond. In other words, it wasn’t a kidney.

A family acquaintance had gotten engaged and the inevitable question of the purchase of a gift came up. I have nothing against buying gifts and sending wishes of many happy returns. As my mother and I are both single, we do an awful lot of gift giving and in the occasional sour grape moment my mother will invariably say what I’m thinking. So… while we were wandering Bed, Bath, and Beyond, we passed the “wedding/fine china/isn’t that picture frame adorable” area.

“So what should we do?” I said. “Should we get a gift?”

“No,” she said. “It’s enough already. We’re always buying gifts for other people. Is anyone buying you gifts? I don’t see anyone buying you a gift.”

(This, I confess, is true. I’ve seriously considered pulling a Carrie Bradshaw and registering myself just to see how the other half lives. And yes, I would adore a gravy boat in case anyone is wondering.)

I was sensing a septuagenarian meltdown coming on. I let the conversation go. However, the conundrum of the gift kept nagging at me. I sent something. The card listed both names. I mentioned this to my mother in passing a few weeks later. This is akin to the childhood ruse of doing something naughty and confessing after five years when no one cares anymore.

“I sent a gift,” I said and before she could respond, I added, “I had to.”

I had to? Where did that come from?

To “have to do something” belongs strictly to the adult lexicon. You will never see a ten year old lamenting to a friend that he ate all his Lima beans for dinner because, “You know how it is Jimmy. I had to.” No, he would say, “They made me.” Semantics, shmantics, There’s a big difference. Huge. Trust me.

The idea of the voluntary “I have to” intrigues me. From when cameth the “I have to”? Shakespeare wrote the “I have to” in his plays. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia is the example of “I have to” with a twist. She is bound by her dead father’s will to accept any oafish suitor who wins a “Price is Right” game of picking the correct casket. However, she devises methods to weed out all of the undesirables until she finds the man she wants. That’s making lemonade out of lemons, in spite of “I have to.”

But what does “I have to” really mean?

Polite Interpretation: I can’t deal with the inevitable guilt. Therefore, I’m going to do this so I don’t have to deal with the inevitable guilt.

Familial Interpretation: I don’t want to listen to (insert family member’s name here)’s mouth, so I have to.

Anxiety Interpretation: What do you want from me? If I step out of line the universe will go off its axis and karma will come back to bite me in the ass.

Every once in a while the world produces people who are not moved by “I have to.” Take Nietzsche, for example. A prime case of the homosapien anomaly that pops up every so often to make everyone shit their pants. Now I grant you the man was a nutbag, and syphilitic (maybe) …and a nutbag. But he didn’t care. His works could be summed up in a tweet:

I don’t give a shit.

I’m better than you.

I don’t have to.


While we all bitch and moan about how homogeneously vanilla our society can be, there are those that refuse to march to the beat of everyone else’s drum. They don’t have to. But they’re not really saying “I don’t have to.” What they’re really saying is “I don’t want to, and you can’t make me.” But if a large percentage of the population begins saying “I don’t want to” you can believe me that it won’t be too long before we’re tramping dangerously close to Lord of the Flies territory. And that makes everyone shit their pants and go into lock down mode to shut down the loose cannon.

The exemption to this is anyone over the age of 60. I understand liberal use of the “I don’t have to” is one of the few perks with advancing age, or so my mother tells me. She says “I don’t have to” all the time. She enjoys it. I’m even a little excited that someday the “I don’t have to” can be mine as well. It’s something to look forward to; like a little perk to compensate for the sagging breasts and underarm flaps.

There is an unwritten rule of adulthood that people do things because “they’re supposed to” which translates into… you guessed it, “they have to.” Why are they attending the birthday party of the sister-in-law they despise because she’s a gold digging bitch? Because they have to. Why does a daughter-in-law go to her mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving and endure the thinly veiled swipes and insults about her cooking and housekeeping skills? Because she has to. In mathematical terms, it’s like computing the “mean” of human experience. There are enough people doing what they “have to” to offset the rest of humanity who prefer to color outside the lines – in purple. No one thinks about this consciously, of course. No one does something because they “have to” and then thinks ‘Thank goodness I did that. I’ve balanced the negative energy of some batshit woman in Boise who wouldn’t drive her kid to dance lessons.’ No, no one thinks that.

This is not to say the “I don’t have to” can’t be useful. “I don’t have to” has often been a prelude to “and I’m not going to.” as in “I’m being mistreated and I don’t have to tolerate this and I’m not going to.” Technically speaking “I don’t have to” can be a powerful agent for positive change. Let’s be clear: I’m not referring to fighting social injustice. I’m referring to having your brother-in-law living in your basement because he married the wrong woman (and everyone told him not to) and now he’s divorced and the sum total of his assets can be listed on the back of a gum wrapper. Any why is he living in your basement when you wanted a playroom for the children? Because your husband says, “What do you want me to do? He needs a place to stay. We have to.” That’s right, you do.

It was disconcerting to me to discover that adulthood was exactly the way Thoreau described it. The mass of men (and women) do lead lives of quiet desperation; dealing with the first world problems of attending weddings when they don’t want to, going to birthday parties they could live without, staying in jobs they don’t like, etc., etc.,

I have heard stories of my great grandmother, a small, feisty, bun-wearing woman. She had four sons, two of whom she outlived, and a lousy husband who didn’t die so she threw him out. The urban legend goes that whenever my great grandmother spoke of her husband, she would say, “Brenen zolst afn fayer” or something like it, which loosely translates to: “He should burn in hell.” You know what the real translation is? “I’m not staying married to you. I don’t have to.”

Way to go Nana.


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