We often think about responsibility as something heavy; a burden we know we ought to bear because, “it’s the right thing to do”. We also seem to set responsibility up as the opposite of freedom; “I wish I could drop everything and fly off to Mexico with you, but I have my job. My kids. Too many responsibilities”.
The problem with this perspective is that we begin to view ourselves as slaves to the commitments we’ve chosen for ourselves. Relationship. Job. A work-out schedule; all of which fulfill many positive and crucial human needs, and yet we forget about all they give us so easily and quickly, when faced with a more desirable option that will lead to short term satisfaction, rather than long term fulfillment (But even long-term fulfillment is not the point, because ultimately, life is far more mysterious and circuitous than a twenty-year plan).
Thus, the conflation between responsibility and sacrifice is made, and the polarity between responsibility and freedom is created. The more we polarize, the more we feel like we have to choose between the two; this is what often leads people into an anxious state of mental fixation, days of non-decision, and then, sometimes, impulsive and rash decisions that ultimately sabotage what they truly want.
I want to propose an alternative option: choosing both.
Rather than conflating responsibility with burden and sacrifice, it seems more accurate to view responsibility as the ability to respond. With this perspective, any sort of moral “shoulds” that may get associated with being responsible get broken down into a vast array of choices that exist in any given moment. The thought process transforms from “what should I do” (based on an idea of societal/cultural expectations) to “what is the action most aligned with integrity, with what matters most to me?”
To be truly responsible, all you have to commit to is responding to the best of your ability in the moment. That is it.
This ability to choose one’s response, rather than simply acting out a habituated pattern, is an enormous developmental accomplishment. In other words, it is a privilege to choose to act in accordance with one’s values and highest integrity, even if it takes some effort. Imagine, for a moment, what the world would be like, if even 10% more of the population did this. 50%? 90%? It would be a different planet. And imagine how you feel in the moments of successfully saying “no” to an indulgence or temporary hit of pleasure, in service and loyalty of your wellbeing, truth, or the greatest good of everyone involved. Most of the time, it’s a deeper, more complex fulfillment than the momentary rush of dopamine we get from scratching the itch; we level up, developmentally, when we begin to consistently choose meaning over short-term satisfaction.
And then think about the people you interact with who do not have this choice. Most likely, they are the most irritating people. The ones who act like they are five, or twelve, or fifteen; because, developmentally, they are.
This doesn’t mean that they are not intelligent or that they do not possess wisdom or even power; in fact, many people who sit in positions of power end up revealing that they have developmental holes in moral and ethical areas, because it takes an incredible amount of self-awareness and discipline to resist the temptation of the perks that that power brings.
So, power, politics, and the existential paradox of freedom and responsibility… Enough philosophizing.
Take a breath, let yourself settle into the sensate experience of this moment. Feel your body, notice your breath, your thoughts. Ask yourself, “What’s true right now?” Notice the richness, the abundant choices and potential that exist within and around you. Then, clarify what truly matters to you; recall your values and how you’d like to walk through this life; notice what happens in your body when you connect with these values; how it shifts your experience to align with your heart’s greatest aspirations. Now respond to the moment; act to best of your ability. And then let it go.