What exactly is responsibility?
I grew up as the oldest of 5 children being told, “You have to be the responsible one. You should know better. You must set the example.”
I’ve been contemplating this word, responsibility, for the past few months.
What am I really responsible for?
Who or what am I responsible to?
What are my responsibilities?
What do I take responsibility for that is not mine to do?
What do I not take responsibility for that is mine to do?
To whom and in what ways do I or can I delegate responsibility?
How do I let or not let responsibility determine the course of my life?
What’s the difference between being responsible “to” something and being responsible “for” something?
Responsibility in the most literal sense is “the ability to respond.” The etymology of the word respond is to assure, promise, pledge or guarantee (sponsor) in return (re).
What am I “promising” and “in return” to/for what?
Who determines what is and is not responsible?
In the extreme divisiveness we’re seeing in the world, there seem to be many opinions about what is and is not responsible, how to be responsible, and who is or is not responsible.
I used to cringe just hearing the word “responsible,” as it only reminded me of an upbringing that felt like an impossible task. The feelings of unfairness in being responsible for the actions of my siblings when I would be left to take care of them, or the feeling of dismissal upon being asked “What did you do?” in response to expressing angst or pain over someone hurting or being unkind to me when I was young, would just come flooding back to me.
I would immediately start to feel like “being responsible” was a losing game, and yet somehow I would take things on and go out of my way to do-it-right, be perfect, make no mistakes, etc.
I didn’t used to ask all of the contemplative questions I’m presenting here. I didn’t consider how much of the expectations placed upon me to “be responsible” were my own.
This left me in a repetitive cycle of being burnt out and exhausted, complete with adrenal fatigue to keep it in my face.
I felt an obligation to do all I could to make things ok, for everyone and every thing. I believed I was somehow a failure if I didn’t achieve that goal of making all ok. I felt I was supposed to be nice, kind, helpful, generous, and always attend to the needs of others. Worst of all, for years, this was simply my truth. I believed it was the “right” thing to do and the “right” way to be.
Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their book Burnout call this Human Giver Syndrome. They speak of philosopher Kate Manne’s idea of “human beings” being those who feel a moral obligation to “be” their whole humanity, while “human givers” feel a moral obligation to “give” their whole humanity.
According to the authors, Human Giver syndrome is like a “virus whose only goal is to perpetuate its own existence.”
Reading that hit me like a ton of bricks. I hadn’t even thought of the fact that my entire journey toward awakening inner wisdom, and my inspiration to bring these teachings forth in a broader way may well have stemmed from this idea of moving from a moral obligation to give to a moral obligation to be.
Indeed I now feel a strong moral obligation to be in my life.
One of my Solace participants recently said how one of the greatest gifts of the teachings has been around the idea of “being all that we are, and nothing we’re not”…my definition of humility.
The focus of all of my offerings, whether writings, teachings, or workshops, is to support us to awaken our inner wisdom and be who we’re here to be.
Even now in my life, I’m continuing to contemplate these questions on responsibility. I’m still constantly tempering how much I’m taking on, and the ways in which I’m taking responsibility (human giving) versus being responsible (able to respond effectively and be responsible for my own actions).
Recently, someone living in a remote area contacted me for support with anxiety and depression. Somehow they’d gotten my name, and was hoping I could help them in their desperation. They hadn’t slept in 4 days, and were becoming dangerously underweight.
They wanted an affordable source for anti-anxiety medication to help them make it through the day. As a coach, medications are not my thing, but I could feel an “obligation” to help them in some way. Their expression of pain broke my heart.
I promised to make some phone calls and get back to them. In the process of speaking with various people, I found myself wanting to “battle the system,” feeling so frustrated at how challenging it is in our American health care system to find support for people in their situation. Part of me wanted to make many more phone calls, finding the loopholes, determined to help.
Then I realized I was falling into my old trap of feeling responsible for them rather than responsible to them. They are part of my human community. I believe I do have a certain amount of responsibility to them. But I am not responsible for them.
I gathered as much as I could to get them started down a viable path to support. Then I called them and provided the details. They were very grateful, and I felt at peace knowing the rest was up to them. Had I tried to figure it all out for them, I would have enabled their feelings of powerlessness. Instead, I offered something to help them feel empowered to take charge of their own situation, and feel comfort in knowing someone cares.
I’m not saying that we cannot advocate for a cause, help the truly helpless, or work toward efforts that benefit many. What I am saying is that it’s important to notice if we’re doing this “for” others or out of a responsibility “to” being human.
Human Giver Syndrome saps us of our energy. It causes us to take things on rather than simply taking them in. It binds us to something outside of ourselves, and robs us of our freedom.
We are Humans Beings. I continue to learn the importance of tending to that being-ness. We are responsible for ourselves, and can choose to be responsible to whatever people, projects or causes we feel moved by.
Another great example of this is from a woman in a business group I’m a part of who works with parents of young children. She had an aha moment that parents are not meant to be the captain of their child’s ship. They’re meant to be the lighthouse.
Indeed we are to be lighthouses, shining forth the unique light that is ours to offer. The light comes from within. The lighthouse is doing nothing but “being,” first and foremost. In that being, it becomes a point of reference, a guidepost, an illumination inspiring others to awaken to their inner light.
May we all step into all that we are, and out of all that we are not. May we become beacons, filled with energy, love, wisdom and light for everyone around us.