I’ve been thinking a lot about responsibility lately. Well, no wonder — I’m looking after my 97-year-old father and doing the best I can for my dysfunctional brother. I’ve always had an enormous sense of responsibility but now I’m wondering if perhaps that isn’t a good thing.
I was the oldest girl in a large family, and as such, I had responsibility thrust on me at an early age. (I never used to admit I was from a large family. I felt ashamed, as if I had been the one to choose to have a large family in overpopulated times. It took me half a lifetime to realize I had no blame in the matter. No responsibility.)
Responsibility means: 1) the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone. 2) the state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something. 3) the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization. 4) a thing that one is required to do as part of a job, role, or legal obligation. 5) a moral obligation to behave correctly toward or in respect of.
It’s unusual for all the definitions of a word to apply in one of my rambling discussions with myself, but in this case, all of them do. Well, except for perhaps #3. I often have a hard time making decisions when all things are equal and it doesn’t make any difference to me what I decide. For example, I can never decide where to go to lunch if I’m out with friends. It’s being with the friends that matters to me, not the food that accompanies the conversation.
I’ve never liked having control over anyone, another leftover from childhood when I would be left in charge, yet I do often feel as if I have a duty to certain people, or perhaps a moral obligation to them. I also sometimes feel responsible for situations that have nothing to do with me, other than that I am there and I care. For example, if I express an opinion or preference, no matter how casual, and another person acts on that opinion with bad results, I blame myself, though I’m learning not to.
Some of my youthful research into spirituality added to this sense of responsibility. If life is created by thoughts, including ours, then everything we do affects the whole. I don’t believe, as many people do, that we create our own illnesses, or that we remain sick because our belief isn’t strong enough to make us well. Nor do I believe we create our problematic situations. I do know that sometimes (maybe most times) things simply happen, and all we can do is deal with them, and yet, the idea still lingers that somehow, somewhere, we are the authors of our lives, the ones responsible for putting ourselves in crises.
I once liked the saying: “No snowflake in an avalanche ever thinks it’s responsible.” It wasn’t until just now that it dawned on me that no snowflake is responsible. The snowflake didn’t create the weather, didn’t create the snowfall, didn’t create the conditions for an avalanche. It didn’t even choose where it was to land.
I’m not much of a snowflake in our society. I’ve only owned one car, and that still-running 42-year-old vehicle has but 153,000 miles on it. I recycle the old-fashioned way — wear out, use up, make do. I trod as lightly as I can, and yet, I am still a snowflake, however unwittingly, causing the avalanche of human destruction on this earth.
So, where does responsibility begin and end? Am I responsible for the earth, for our society’s problems, for my family, my father, my brother?
Am I responsible for the death of my life mate/soul mate? Now that I know the answer to. Of course I am not responsible, and yet there is something deep in me, something beyond consciousness, that believes perhaps I didn’t do enough, didn’t hold on to him tightly enough, didn’t love enough.
See? An enormous sense of misplaced responsibility.
So, are we responsible for responsibility? If things go wrong in the world (or in a family or community), how much of the accountability or the blame belongs to us? Do we in fact have control over anything, or do things just happen — will we, nill we?
Research into the mind shows that often a decision is made before we become aware we made the decision. One test had people choose which light to light up, but often the light lit up before it was chosen, which led researchers to wonder if the people chose the light in the millisecond after it lit up. Perhaps, as this research might indicate, we have no real choice in what happens. In which case, how can there be responsibility?
I suppose it’s also possible that no matter what we do, we’d get the same results. Although that idea wasn’t formulated when I wrote the first chapter of Break Time, the soon-to-be-published steampunk anthology, it’s how the story progressed. Every time Al went back to the past to save his wife and child from death, they ended up dying in another accident. If the end is the same no matter what we do, how can there be responsibility?
And is it possible (or even acceptable) to unshoulder a lifetime of responsibility?
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.