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Personal Responsibility

If I had to choose one particularly relevant topic both on an individual as well as a global level – one thing that could change the world for the better if done properly – then it would be the topic of responsibility.

And that’s because responsibility is one of those things that when you change it on a small scale it will have rippling effects on the large scale as well. And the same goes for the other direction. A community of people that holds themselves and each other accountable for their action is one that enhances individual wellbeing as well as global sustainment. But both individual and collective responsibility cannot work without the respective other. A society that doesn’t behave responsibly on the large scale cannot expect its constituents to become responsible individuals. And conversely a group of irresponsible individuals cannot expect the emergence of responsibility on the larger scale.

Some people are in the position to initiate global change directly because they have the power and resources to do so. But most of us are not. The sphere of influence of the common woman or man is very much limited to what’s geographically proximate. If you are like most people, then your sphere of influence is closer to the second than to the first situation. You can influence the people that are close to you, your family and friends, maybe your colleagues at work. But you cannot directly influence the political landscape that you are forced to live in. Yes, you can go to the ballots and throw in your vote. But what happens after that is pretty much out of your hands. Even if your party gets elected, there is no real foretelling what they are going to do with that power.

But the fact that most people’s direct influence on the macroscopic plane is so infinitesimal, does not mean that they are categorically impotent. Even if you were born a farmer’s son somewhere far off the big cities you can still drive positive change through the way in which you live your own life – in particular by living your life in a responsible way. Because as I mentioned before, collective responsibility is rooted in individual responsibility. And that responsibility spreads from the root upward. So, even if all the political avenues are closed to you, what you can do is assume personal responsibility, despite the fact that you may not feel efficacious enough to fill those shoes. But what will happen, once you do, is that your circle of influence will grow as you assume that responsibility. There is no better example of this than to look at the way we raise children.

When my son picks up a hammer and decides to punch a hole in the wall with it, it’s my responsibility to react in a way that promotes growth in responsibility. So, the way that I will treat this action is, as if my son was responsible even though he’s not. He may have been the one who wielded the hammer, but he didn’t really know what he was doing. Yet I will treat him as if he knew. I will hold him responsible for his actions, although I know full well that he’s not old enough to fully understand what he should and shouldn’t do. But I also know that the only way he can learn it is to be treated as though he knew. So, if he senses my disapproval of his actions then he will feel guilty about it. And the fact that he feels guilty strengthens the belief in him that he is responsible for his own actions. By being held responsible, he can learn to assume responsibility. If he was never held responsible for his actions, there would be no way for him to learn.

In a sense, there is something inherently unjust about this treatment. After all, he couldn’t know that what he was doing was bad at the time that he did it. And still, he is treated by his parents as if he should have known. And the proper implementation of this device is something that we should be very careful with because we don’t want to create a sense of unjust treatment in our children. For every time a child is held responsible for their action there must also be offered a helping hand – an open door that leads the way to improvement. A child should not be made to feel guilty without knowing how to be or do better. When it comes to parenting, we sometimes have to treat our children in a way that may seem mildly unjust at the moment – but we know that in the long-term it will pave the way for them to grow up to be someone who can stand their ground and be self-dependent. The sacrifice in the short term is what proliferates a valuable development in the long run.

This is a situation where being held responsible is a necessary precondition for being able to assume responsibility. The impulse must come from the outside before it can grow inside. Sometimes parenting comes in the form of making it clear that doing the right thing is more profitable for the child than doing the wrong thing. Only in such an environment can the child develop in the right direction. If we never give our children an incentive to be responsible there is very little reason for them to assume responsibility – because it’s uncomfortable to do so. But what’s even more important is that without assuming responsibility the child can never understand its relationship to the world around it. If I don’t reprimand my child for doing something wrong, then he won’t know that what he did was wrong, and he won’t connect the badness of his action to his own moral integrity. If doing bad things doesn’t mean that I am bad, then I can do bad things without having to live with a guilty conscience. That’s the result of improper parenting.

On the other hand, if intention and consequence of action are properly connected in the mind of the child, then that enables the child to first assume responsibility and then act in a way that is productive and influential. The more accurately our sense of responsibility relates to our range of influence, the more intentionally we can act. But as in the case of the child, sometimes it is necessary to assume responsibility first – even though we might not yet be able to really fill those shoes. But by assuming responsibility we can grow to a size that will fit those shoes.

So, you really have two options. You either grow up until you can wear adult shoes, or you find children’s shoes that will fit your actual scale of influence but also stunt your growth and keep you tiny for the rest of your life. That’s really the dynamic of responsibility.

As it is with the child, so it is with adults. You might find yourself in a position where you feel like you have little influence over the large-scale events of the world. You may feel an injustice in the way our economic and political structures are set up. You may feel like the system you live in is inherently exploitative in one way or another. And at the same time, you also feel tiny and incapable of changing anything about that situation. But while you may be tiny on the grand scale of things, you’re certainly not impotent. You can effect change, but you must do it like the child does. First you must assume responsibility over things that you may feel you have no control over (yet). And by doing that you can increase your circle of influence so it can fill up your circle of responsibility again. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When you go to therapy because you are depressed or overwhelmed with life, and you therapist talks with you about your childhood and you discover that all your problematic patterns of behaving and thinking and feeling are rooted in the way that your parents treated you, then that offers you a way out of responsibility. You look at your past and you understand that your environment made you the way you are today. But you were a child when that happened, and you didn’t have control.

There is something attractive about this interpretation because it lifts some of the weight off your shoulders that made you depressed in the first place. But it is also a dangerous path to go down. While it may be true that you are a product of your surroundings to some degree that doesn’t mean that embracing this story will improve your situation for the better. Yes, it may give you some solace, but if you don’t pay attention, this story can also hold you captive and prevent you from making things better. If you think that all you are and all the problems you have, are rooted in the way that your parents treated you then you have an excuse to be exactly what you are and nothing more. Your inadequacies are justified and so you can be comfortable with not changing them.

But of course, that doesn’t change anything about the fact that you feel depressed and overwhelmed. Very likely it will even exaggerate that feeling since now your sense of impotence can even be analyzed and explained and justified. Now you have good reason to feel terrible as well, and usually, people stick to what they have good reason for. That’s not a good place to be in but sometimes it’s just more comfortable to be the victim of one’s surroundings that to try and make things better.

As they say, “Better the devil you know”. But that’s of course not true. The devil you know is not less of a devil than the one you don’t know. It’s just that it’s less scary. Change is scary, especially if you don’t trust that you have the fortitude and the influence to change. And so, if you’re faced with the option of staying in your comfortable nest of self-pity and the option of jumping out and learning how to fly, it can sometimes feel safer just to stay where you are, despite the fact that you’re barely hanging on.

But living with the devil you know changes nothing about the fact that you’re living with a devil. Psychoanalysis – that is the branch of psychology that is concerned with digging up the past and finding answers to your current problems there – has this pernicious side to it, where it can trap you in a victim narrative. Don’t get me wrong, it can be extremely helpful to work through the past to figure out where you stand. The past does indeed hold many a key to the secrets of our identity. But we must be careful not to get stuck in the past. The past is not where you set change in motion. That’s what you do in the present with one eye aimed at the future.

You should use the past to understand yourself so you can figure out what you need to change to make things better. So, if your past has left you in shambles, you take a proper look at the breaking lines and figure out how to put them back together. That’s an act of assuming responsibility. That’s when you acknowledge the influence that the past has had on you and decide that from now on things are going to be different. Despite the fact that you are not to blame for who you are today, it’s your responsibility whether you stay in that state of brokenness or take the necessary steps to fix it.

And this same principle applies to the bigger picture as well. If you feel like there is nothing you can do about the injustices in the world, then what you should do is ask yourself how you could become someone who does. And I don’t want to create the impression that being committed will miraculously make you more influential. It won’t. But what it will do is make you reflect on the responsibility you take in your own life and whether the limits of that responsibility are fixed. And when you really sit down and meditate on this, you will realize that there is always a choice.

There is the choice of dedicating your life to change. And if you’re truly committed to change, bones and all, then you will see that this commitment will release a kind of energy that you didn’t know you had before. You will realize that you can expand your circle of influence by taking responsibility for more things.

You might start by helping your desperate mother out of her depression. You’ll see that she gets better over time and as she does, she suddenly becomes a valuable contribution to society again, where she wasn’t before, because she was consumed with her own affairs. If you feel like the education system in your country needs fixing, you now have much more options than ever before. You can create alternative channels of teaching over the internet – that may be more considerate of the many qualities that different individuals bring to the table. And if you don’t know how to do that you can figure it out by making use of the endless resources that we have at our fingertips today. Everything’s just one click away after all. If you feel like there is something wrong with the way in which our society treats women, you can start writing a blog that contributes to making it a more publicly appreciated issue. If you are truly committed to that cause, then people will start noticing you and you will become connected with other people who think like you. You can build networks and start companies that promote your cause.

What I am saying here is that there are enough doors for you to change the world. The question is whether you have the courage to open them.

If everybody made it a habit to sit down every day and reflect on how elastic the boundaries of their influence really are, we would have a culture of empowerment. Because being aware of what you could change and knowing you don’t make proper use of your possibilities makes you feel uncomfortable about yourself and about the idleness in which you live. That’s the power of living in full transparency with oneself – the truth can sometimes kick you in the butt and make you go to work.

Now, none of this is meant to leave the impression that working hard and being committed and disciplined is how you should live. That’s not what I am saying. What I am saying is that if you feel like things should be different from how they are, you are very likely in a position to play a role in that change. What I am saying is that if you desire change, you can contribute to it but only if you manage to see your own responsibility in the matter. If you feel like we are exploiting the planet as a collective, then you can do your part by not exploiting it as an individual. You can say, I am part of this problem, so let me figure out how to fix it. And maybe you won’t be successful. But failing at a good cause is better than never even trying in the first place.

I hope you enjoyed this topic. If you did, I have good news for you, since there will be more to come over the next few blog posts, we release. Have a good day and I’ll see you in the next one.

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