Whether you consider it hyperbole or a simple truth, this turn of phrase is often used as an expression of devotion. It suggests a deep and unbounded passion that eclipses everything else that we hold dear and takes its place as the foremost of our priorities.
It sounds rather lovely, but I am suspicious of it. Perhaps most importantly, it seems patently untrue to me; even the purest love, most impassioned commitment to a cause or most fervent ambition ought to be tempered by reason. It may not be romantic to listen to rational argument, but it is sensible to at least consider it in the light of relevant circumstances and other competing priorities. ‘Anything’ is a pretty broad category and in holding oneself to such a profound promise it is not hard to imagine a growing list of caveats that would need to be added to it to make it true, unless one is prepared to cross the line into extremism.
As well as being untrue, I think it ought also to be seen as unappealing. Perhaps the speaker intends only to express a deep love or commitment, but if they genuinely do mean to declare that they would commit any atrocity in pursuit of it, I see not steadfastness but insanity or, at best, naivety. Nonetheless, when a parent professes that they would do anything for their child, the expected response is to agree wholeheartedly; it would be socially awkward to retort that I wouldn’t, however true. It may sound callous, but I would not do ‘anything’ for one of my children. If one of them needed a transplant I would sacrifice myself but I would not run over a number of potentially matching children in the locality in the hope of finding a donor to save her. There are, in my view quite rightly, limits to what I would do for those I love. That does not render those deep bonds meaningless, it simply means acknowledging that they are not completely boundless.
Quite often, and even more irritatingly, the phrase is used as a very thinly veiled criticism: ‘Oh, you didn’t bring in any cakes. It can be hard when you’re busy, but I’d do anything for my colleagues/kids/church/charity.’ In this case the phrase is not so much directed at the speaker’s deep commitment but at highlighting your lack of it. But even dedication that would go so far as doing ‘anything’ would surely not be a commitment to doing ‘everything’, otherwise the phrase becomes even more ludicrous. It also ignores the relative importance of everything else in your life; your first priority may be your children, your partner, your job, your faith or your cause, but not such that anything done to that end, however small, trumps everything else in your life. If a friend called from hospital needing urgent help, would you ignore them to bake for the fundraiser or to attend a child’s school play?
But perhaps none of this matters – it’s just a turn of phrase after all. Except that I think that what we say does matter. I don’t think it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ to try not to say offensive things. Similarly, I don’t think it’s healthy to say things that we don’t really mean. I have a tendency to worry too much about what others think, and it’s exactly this sort of phrase that recommends dedicating oneself entirely to something or someone else and suggests that doing so is in some way noble.
We need to balance our priorities and I include within that the importance of looking after ourselves. Not only for our own wellbeing, but also to set an example. I love washing up to pop music and usually enjoy a little salsa-style shimmying when ‘Rockabye’ comes on. But there’s one particular lyric in it that always makes me feel sad: ‘she tells him “your life ain’t gonna be nothing like my life, you’re gonna grow and have a good life, I’m gonna do what I’ve got to do.”’ This concept of constant self sacrifice in the hope of giving our children a better future is a potential vicious circle, for it demonstrates to them the importance we place on giving up our own hopes and dreams to further those of the people we love. Expecting our children to then wander into a Utopia where they will find happiness that we have never shown them, seems naive. Needs must sometimes, but if we have a choice, surely we could be demonstrating that improving our own wellbeing can also enhance that of those around us; that investing in ourselves energises us, makes us better partners, parents, employees and friends. The best way to teach our children happiness is to go in search of it.
And so, to protect my children, I’ll be letting them know that, although they are my top priority in this world, I can’t promise to do anything for them.