I’m going to describe a scenario that I imagine, with minor adjustments, will be familiar to more or less everyone. Let’s say that you have promised a family member that you will spend the weekend with them, even though you are pretty sure that it will be no fun at all. You can change the details here to match your own experience: the key details are
1. that you expect to have a genuinely bad time, and
2. that for whatever reason (a promise made, an understanding of how important it is to them, an inherent sense of familial duty etc) you feel a strong obligation.
Shortly afterwards, a friend invites you to do something really exciting on that same weekend; again, you can imagine the specifics for yourself, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s a rare opportunity to see your favourite band play live.
Now, a very common reaction in this situation is to feel torn: duty pulling one way, desire pulling the other. Either we feel we have no choice - I want to do X, but I have to do Y - or a choice between two bad outcomes - feeling guilty about letting someone down, or feeling miserable and resentful for missing the band.
This same dynamic applies in many more situations, of course, and when it relates to the big life decisions (I want to be an artist, but I have to work in this office to make money for rent, and so on) it can be overwhelming. Depending on your character, you may obsess about it or desperately try to distract yourself from it; you may side towards a quiet, unfulfilled dutifulness or a fun-filled but secretly self-loathing hedonism; you might resent others for holding you back, or yourself for lacking virtue.
So how to avoid these traps? As so often, instead of trying to change the external situation, it can be more useful to change the internal side of things, namely the way of seeing. The 'duty versus desire' way of seeing this dilemma feels to me like a prison, or a tug of war with me as the rope. But another, equally valid way of seeing the situation is as a choice between two desires: the desire to have fun and the desire to be dutiful; the desire to add some joy and music to my life and the desire to support a family member.
To some, reformulating duty as a desire-to-be-dutiful removes the altruism: a reductive response might be “oh well, so you’re only doing it to feel good about yourself”. But if we resist the urge to simplify and be cynical, we can see that the opposite is true: it acknowledges that altruism is a part of us. In my experience, everyone wants in some way and to some extent to ‘be a good person’, to help and support others, to give of themselves. Duty can be a useful concept, but like discipline, it is best thought of a something you follow (the root of the word is the same as that of disciple), not as something that is imposed on you.
This shift in the way of looking may not change the choice we make, but in my experience it makes it much less painful, because it feels like being a true choice. It brings a feeling of spaciousness and autonomy. And it allows us to genuinely ask ourselves: am I able to give of myself in this case? Am I able to make that sacrifice? How much does the more appealing choice really appeal to me? What, in this case, do I really want?