Everything we do in life involves an investment. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s time, sometimes it’s just emotional and physical energy. Sometimes it’s a sacrifice of other things we give up in order to do something else. We don’t often think about how much of the intangibles we put into the things we choose to fill our lives with.
Part of the reason we have trouble doing this kind of accounting is because, in the end, it asks us to create some kind of exchange rate between tangibles like time or money and intangibles like contentment or influence or camaraderie. How much time are you willing to put into a pursuit if you only get out so much joy? How much access to knowledge or support makes that time worth it? What if you start counting up how much money you spend on it? Is it still worth it?
Of course, we do this kind of tally in a much more intuitive way, usually when we start to feel that the balance is tipped too far in one direction. We start to feel drained by something, overextended, frustrated at lack of fulfilling experiences. We start to feel like we’re stretched too thin or that people are asking too much of us, that our obligations are keeping us from doing things we care about otherwise.
When I moved out on my own after college I ran into such an intuitive accounting. I’d always enjoyed my church experiences in my family church, but I got a lot of return on that investment of time and energy. I got time with family I otherwise never saw, I got opportunities to learn things and develop skills like playing the organ. But once I was living nine hours away from family and faced with the prospect of sitting in a pew thrice a week without the perks I’d previously enjoyed, the return on investment wasn’t worth it. I was suddenly a lot less willing to spend my Sundays on church because I didn’t think I’d get enough out of the experience to justify the cost.
The complication when it comes to spiritual endeavors is that there’s the added return of cultural approval. To the extent that we feel it’s important to satisfy the expectations of those in our lives who expect us to participate in certain spiritual activities or communities, the fact that we don’t feel personally balanced in terms of costs and benefits can be justified by a feeling of obligation. But in the end, is that any different than spending more than you can afford on clothing or a car or dinner just because you don’t want others to judge you negatively?
How much is the obligation we feel to others really worth spending time and energy on?