What do you think of when you hear the word responsibility or responsible? Merriam Webster suggests three synonyms for it: reliability, trustworthiness, and burden. I think we can all agree that we think of a responsible person as reliable and trustworthy, and that these are good qualities. But we also seem to have the idea that responsibility is a burden, something to be run from, something to be afraid of.
Why is this? Why is it that we fear responsibility while admiring the responsible person? Why do we not want to become what we admire? This seems contradictory.
I think this contradictory attitude is the result of two different things. First, we have somehow created the idea that responsible means boring. And secondly, responsibility means making choices and even commitments, and then living with those choices, and that can be hard.
When you hear the words “responsible adult,” the image that probably pops into your head is an overweight, balding middle aged man with a dull job, an ordinary suburban house, and an unsatisfying family life. Or perhaps a frazzled woman wearing mom jeans, who drives a minivan to take her 2.5 bratty kids to classes and other activities, while working a job and doing endless boring housework.
This is the bourgeois adult ideal: a perfect cog in the economic machine. The bourgeois idea of the “responsible adult” is someone who goes to work, makes payments, puts money in their retirement fund, and looks forward to the day they can retire and not have to work anymore. They watch (and pay for) cable, buy things that advertisers tell them they need, get a newer car and a bigger TV occasionally, and generally keep the economic machine turning, both as a producer and a consumer.
It’s not surprising that this ideal seems unattractive. There’s nothing either noble or exciting in it. Who would want to take on responsibility if it meant that? I am going to argue that it doesn’t. But first, let’s talk about the other reason people want to avoid responsibility.
Advertising and popular culture tend to idolize the footloose young person and the rebel. American Eagle Outfitters is a particularly good example of this, having ads that present the teen or twenty-something, wearing jeans and casual tops in various stages of disarray, complete with slogans like, “I can dance weird,” “I can make my own rules,” and “Vacay all day.” Nowhere is there a picture of a person who looks like he or she is doing anything serious. No applied high-school or college students, no one who looks like they are working on anything meaningful, no one who looks married or even committed. Of course, American Eagle Outfitters is a casual brand, but I think the real reason that they only show people partying or breaking the rules is that they understand that working and being responsible aren’t “cool.” What is “cool” is partying, going to the beach, and the hookup culture.
The “cool” person is the one who has no commitments. He or she is typically in an open relationship, and despite having all the stuff he or she wants, can pick up and do something else whenever he or she feels like it. She is definitely “child-free” so that she can travel and spend all her money on herself.
Making life choices will always be somewhat challenging. But if we think that there are only two options: being “cool” and having no responsibilities, or having responsibilities, and being boring, it will be even harder.
Is Limitation Bad?
Committing to one thing does indeed limit you. Buying a house, getting married, whatever responsibility you take on will limit your options. Even committing to go to your friend’s birthday party on Friday evening means that you are not going to be able to go to any other parties that evening, or stay home and watch netflix. It means that you have set aside that time for one specific purpose and no other. How much more limiting is marrying one man. It means that you can’t go out with other men or marry them. And if you are married, and especially if you have children, it means that there will be many things you cannot do. It means that you have set aside your entire life for one purpose and no other. A somewhat frightening thought.
So let us imagine that you have no responsibilities. No one will mind if you leave tomorrow and go hiking in Peru, or clubbing in New York. You have no husband, no boss, no one working for you, and above all, no children to tie you down. You don’t even have to worry about going to your friend’s birthday party on Friday, because you haven’t made any commitment to do so. In fact, you never make any plans that involve other people, because you want to make sure no better ideas come up at the last minute. Above all, you never get into a serious relationship, because you are afraid that it will tie you down, take too much of your time, and that someone better might come along…
Doesn’t it sound wonderful? No? It might be nice for a few days, but in the long run, it sounds even more boring and more lonely than being a cog in an economic machine.
So what is the right answer? What is the right sort of responsibility? What will allow us to fulfill our dreams of being more, of being valued and worthwhile people? Should we tie ourselves down to the bourgeois life of keeping up with the Joneses, or should we be “cool” unattached, and inevitably, lonely when we get just a little older, or is there another option?
Responsibility gives us power
The first question we should ask is whether being limited is necessarily bad, or whether it actually our limitations that give us power. The idea of limitation being empowering may seem like an oxymoron or a paradox, but think about it for a moment. Imagine water flowing without limitations. It spreads itself out everywhere and cannot do anything except cause trouble. Now imagine that same water in a fountain. It leaps, it sparkles, and everyone comes to look at it because now that it is limited to certain ordered paths it has become a dynamic thing of beauty and order. Or for a less romantic example, you could imagine the water in pipes in your house. As long as the water remains within the pipes, it can wash clothes or dishes, and quench thirst. If it leaves the pipes—well you’ve probably all experienced plumbing leaks, so I don’t need to tell you what happens.
Like pipes for water, our choices limit us to certain courses of action. If you have chosen to get married, you are limited—you are limited in who you will love, and what you will do, to a certain extent. But it is precisely those limitations that give you your power. Because you have chosen one course of action among many, you now have the ability to direct your actions effectively. You know what your priorities are, and this allows you to balance and direct your actions effectively.
Any person who has chosen any responsibility is in a sense limited by that responsibility. A mother of young children can’t simply run off and see the world at a moment’s notice, nor can she spend all her time playing video games. Neither can a man or woman with his or her own business or any other career. The children, the family, the business must be taken care of before other things can be done.
Besides giving life structure and direction, responsibility also gives us power in a different way. If we admit that we are responsible for our own lives, we have the power to change those lives. As Steve Maraboli, the behavioral psychologist and motivational speaker says, “The victim mindset dilutes the human potential. By not accepting personal responsibility for our circumstances, we greatly reduce our power to change them.” Sometimes it feels good to be able to say, “It’s not my fault. That wasn’t my job.” And sometimes it is true. But which would you rather have written on your tombstone? “It wasn’t her fault.” or “She did what she could with what she had, and made the world better.”
Traveling, hobbies, and freedom are fun, they are not what gives meaning and structure to life. It is our responsibilities that do that. The things that “tie us down” are precisely the things that lift us up, that make our lives a story rather than just a sequence of undistinguished events.