Mostly I’ve been educated to be a responsible person, and, at the same time, not a depressed one. When I claim that mostly I’ve been a responsible person, I mean that, by and large, I’ve done things I was expected to do in order to be thought a good person. Being responsible means I have responded to those expectations. Since my childhood, when I started seriously working at being responsible, I have had the expectation that one day, later in life, I would experience some satisfaction in my accomplishment. At the age of seventy-one, I’m still waiting on that anticipated pleasure.
Sometimes, in moments of weakness, I question if the returns on my investment in a life of responsibility are worth all the effort. Other times, I think it’s more a question of responsibility to whom or what? Like, is it really working for me to be so conscientiously striving to live up to expectations of who I should be? If I don’t want to simply throw away my sense of responsibility altogether, is there something or someone else I could be responsible to.
I believe my responsibility has been wrongly directed. It started a long time ago, when I was a kid, and learned to respond to what big people expected of me, to be quiet and well-behaved, which really amounted to the same thing. I got rewarded for being good and punished for being bad. I was being trained to one day be a big, grown-up, responsible person myself, and, mostly, the training was effective. Where it didn’t work so well were in those situations I eventually encountered in which there was no bigger person around to tell me what was good or bad. Or if there was such a person around, for some reason, I no longer trusted their judgement. I questioned. I began wondering how the hell did they know. I increasingly found myself in this kind of ambivalence the older I got, as if it were part and parcel of growing up, but an aspect of maturing I had not been warned about. There were times when I felt completely alone when faced with questions that demanded I distinguish between a right choice and wrong one. Upon what was I to make such judgments, if not upon values learned from my elders?
These days, I talk to clients, friends, and others I meet casually, and I sense from those meetings that many of us strive with the same powerful forces that seem to stand in the way of our gaining what was promised us as children, a deep satisfaction in the lives we live. Is it that our primary responsibility is not to expectations, ours or others, of what our lives should be, but rather to our increasing willingness to be with and bare compassionate witness to the lives we do live? What would our lives be without all those shoulds? A lot freer and less burdensome, I imagine. But then, what would prevent us from becoming self-centered, amoral, if not immoral, individuals? Ah, that’s the fear. That’s what we were told long ago: that basically we can not be trusted. We need shoulds, shouldn’ts, regulations, policies, laws, edicts, codes, commandments, correctional institutions, outcome statements and legal contracts to keep us responsible. Trust is irrelevant. Mistrust is unquestioned.
Over a hundred and fifty years ago, a Danish gentleman by the name of Soren Kierkegaard suggested that an individual’s prime responsibility in life was to his or her inner source of selfhood and to that same source in others. He argued that was the only way of gaining a satisfying, moral and communal life. The widespread practice of not noticing, or dismissing if we do notice, our own and others’ deeply subtle experience of living inevitably leads to separating aspects of our lives that belong and long to be together. That sense of something being missing, of emptiness, an absence of meaning and motivation and of loneliness are signs of misplaced responsibility, of overly responding to the obvious, the showy and the brief at the expense of the deep and enduring. All of it needs our attention and our genuinely personal response.