“The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.” ~Joan Didion
What does it mean to be responsible? According to dictionary definitions, it means that we are accountable for our actions and their consequences. As a legal concept, it means that we have the mental capacity to make rational moral decisions between right and wrong. And in practical terms it means that we are trustworthy — that we can be relied on to answer for our conduct and to fulfill our obligations.
Of course we cannot trust ourselves, nor be worthy of others’ trust, unless we are honest first. That means that responsibility also has something to do with integrity, for responsible people’s words and actions match up. When we’re responsible, we “say what we mean and mean what we say,” which is a pretty good working description of integrity.
If we freely agree to an obligation — say, to be at work each morning by 8:00 — then we have said that others can rely on us to be there at that time. If we fail to meet that responsibility, then we should expect to be held accountable for our failure. Likewise our obligations to repay debts, to honor our marriage vows, and to respect others’ rights.
Determining the nature and limits of such responsibilities is the business of our entire legal system: contractual obligations between buyers and sellers, employer/employee responsibilities, the responsibilities of parents to and for children, of husbands and wives, and the civic responsibilities of citizens and the state. Some of these might seem rather vague and complex at times, but they are nonetheless superficial in comparison with the deeper significance of responsibility as a fundamental spiritual principle.
That is the “responsibility for one’s own life” addressed by Joan Didion in the quote above.
Our willingness and ability to be responsible for our own lives—for the choices we make and their consequences is more than just the basis for our own self-respect. It’s also the basis of others’ respect for us. More than almost anything else, it’s what distinguishes grownups from children . . . mature persons from perpetual adolescents . . . and legally competent adults from wards of the state. And it is what distinguishes people who are self-aware from those who are just sleep-walking through life as victims of their own refusal to accept responsibility for their fate.
As children, of course, we’re hardly capable of such responsibility. From the time we’re born and for many years afterward, we are completely dependent on others for nearly everything, including our basic survival. If our parents and other elders fail to meet our needs—or worse, actively abuse us physically or emotionally—we are not in any way responsible for that nor for the damage that may result.
But as adults we are completely responsible for meeting our old unmet needs and for healing from whatever damage we may have suffered in childhood and after—regardless of who inflicted it! Even though we’re seldom completely the cause of whatever situation we find ourselves in, we are nevertheless completely responsible for what we do about it. No one else can take that responsibility from us or for us, no matter how much we or they might wish it. And though none of us can heal ourselves without assistance, no one else can be responsible for securing whatever help we might need.
Blessed with the capacity to reason and to learn, and with the freedom to make our own choices and to act on them, we and we alone are responsible for what we choose to do with our lives. And we cannot escape that responsibility. Even if we choose not to choose we are still responsible, for whatever happens will be the consequence of our choice. If we drift passively through life, carried along by fate, victims of circumstance, we are still responsible for whatever happens to befall us, for it was our choice to suffer the consequences of such passive lack of participation in our own lives.
Finally, as we become more responsible for our own lives, we will also become more aware that our personal welfare is necessarily connected with the welfare of others. We are social beings, highly interdependent. Our individual fates are tied to the fates of our families, friends, communities, nations, and ultimately the whole world. There is no such thing as real responsibility without concern for the effect we have on others, for our choices and behaviors have consequences for them, too.
This, then, is where the rubber really meets the road where responsibility as a spiritual principle is concerned: To be aware that our obligations extend far beyond ourselves and include others we may never meet—in other nations, other continents, even other generations. To inform ourselves with unflinching honesty about the ripple effects of our actions. And to commit ourselves to spiritual growth and the pursuit of wisdom so that we may make the best possible choices, for ourselves and for others whose lives we affect.
Links to more information about Responsibility:
At LiveStrong.com, see “Accepting Personal Responsibility”
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on, “Moral Responsibility”
Chuck Gallozzi, “Responsibility Is Not a Burden, It’s a Blessing”
Brian Tracy on “Taking Personal Responsibility”
Agnes Naswa, “The Definition of Responsibility”
Books about Responsibility:
Taking Responsibility: Self-Reliance and the Accountable Life, by Nathaniel Branden
Psychologist Brandon’s self-help book about the essential role that personal responsibility and accountability play as a foundation for self-esteem.
Frank Pittman, Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult
Psychiatrist and family therapist Pittman writes amusingly about how we can teach ourselves and our children to grow up by becoming responsible.
Vincent Barry, The Dog Ate My Homework: Personal Responsibility, How We Avoid It and What to Do About It Ethics professor Berry’s amusing and informative book about personal empowerment through taking responsibility for our actions and our lives.