The word responsibility has come up in a number of my conversations lately, a word, however, we actually don’t seem to use that much these days. It’s actually quite an important word. Why has it seemingly fallen into neglect?
The term response assumes some level of engagement with another person or other entity. Responsibility assumes the ability to respond, and in general has a positive connotation in that we will respond positively, we will be responsible people. We will respond and engage with caring, accountability, integrity, and with our best intentions.
Most of us would like to believe we are responsible people, that we can be trusted with our duties and the things we are expected to tend and care for. It’s essentially a matter of integrity.
But here is my take on why the term responsibility has lost some of its power. I think we have lost confidence in our ability to be sufficiently responsible because so much of life seems to be out of our control. I learned over the years that one of the worst things about a job is to be given responsibility for a task or project and then not be given the authority or resources to carry out the assigned task. When there is a serious gap between responsibility and capability it causes a sense of anxiety, ineptitude, frustration, avoidance, denial and ultimately depression. We feel less and less able to be responsible, and we feel discouraged. Our sense of integrity begins to sink.
Many of the problems we are facing in the world and in our private lives and communities today seem so complex, so intractable, and some, like climate change, can even feel impossible within our known competence to responsibly address. The issues are too large. Several people have told me recently that they are reluctant to get involved in social change movements because they aren’t willing to deal with the likely frustration and inability to make a difference. They are reluctant to assume responsibility.
And then there is the flip side of responsibility - irresponsibility - that has double the negative connotations. To be labelled an irresponsible person is a sort of indictment, someone not to be respected or trusted; a person without integrity. My heart is often sick these days with political pronouncements that are plain and simple irresponsible. And I am frustrated and angered when people in political or leadership roles of responsibility deny or frustrate meeting needs out of self-serving motives or protection of the status quo that I consider irresponsible. I think of the irresponsible neglect of our children and poor most particularly. But on a metta scale I continue to appalled at how irresponsibly as a nation we allow the Pentagon to have such a gigantic bite of our national budget with its unaccountable waste and fraud that steals in equally gigantic proportions from our domestic needs. And this pervasive sense of cultural irresponsibility can indeed be discouraging and depressing to the point that we don’t even want to try to make a difference.
So it’s time to reclaim the power of responsibility. Responsibility can best be described as the act of engaging with others or with problems out of our realistic highest level of capacity, integrity and intentions. The act of intending to do our best with integrity is the key. Sure, we may not succeed, probably not right away anyway, maybe not a all. Maybe our task will change in the process and we will feel confused, stifled and discouraged by complexity. But we need to believe we can and will make a difference ultimately. What we do responsibly, nonviolently, with compassion and caring will not be lost. And perhaps we also need to hold others to be responsible as well: responsible speech, responsible behavior, responsible stewards of the land; responsible within our workplace, family, and especially within ourselves. It’s a worthy life standard.
Responsibility is a “grown up” word. It is how we act truly as mature adults. Let us not loose the sense of integrity and self worth responsibility offers, even when we are challenged by how difficult holding that standard may be.
Interestingly, I think reclaiming a sense of committed responsibility is also somehow closely related to hope. You can ponder that!
There are, of course, unlimited opportunities to express responsibility in our private and public lives. What areas of personal, professional, social, political responsibility do you assume in your life right now? Who or what in your life holds you responsible? What is allowing you to succeed in meeting those responsibilities? What is frustrating you? What skills and capacities do you have to hold others responsible, hopefully with a spirit of nonviolence and respect? How might we learn to reestablish responsibility as a key word in our conversations without sounding patronizing or judgmental?