This month’s question from Ask Big Questions poses a great challenge to me. Their question is
I love the educational approach of gaining some level of understanding by answering a question. My initial response is to set that education in motion with more questions:
Who are “we”? Is responsibility for someone or to someone?
What is needed of us?
These questions, though, journey within a framework that I find misleading. We can, as Ask Big Questions challenges, “understand others and understand ourselves” by asking these questions. In the end, though, I fear we may only end up with an exercise in moral relativism: you think this, I think that, we are both right (even if our positions are confrontational).
At the heart of the question of responsibility for others is, I believe, attention to oneself. Responsibility implies a response to an other. To respond to that which is not you, you must understand yourself. The better we understand ourselves–and especially ourselves in relation to other–the better able to respond we will be. Responsibility is based on response-ability.
What kind of self-knowledge helps develop response-ability? Any:
- Knowing your limitations helps you see others’ strengths.
- Knowing your strengths helps you see others’ weaknesses.
- Knowing your values helps you put them into practice with others.
- Knowing your doubts helps you ask questions of others.
- Knowing your habits helps you account for gut-reactions and above-and-beyond actions towards others.
- Knowing your purpose helps you model purpose-driven living for others.
- Knowing your journey helps you share life’s journey with others.
- Knowing your privilege or deprivation helps you see inequality among others.
- Knowing your roots and your history helps you put others into perspective.
- AND knowing there is “something” within you helps you see that responsibility need not be a zero-sum game.
The better we know ourselves, the more we see that we are in relation to everyone else. The greater that knowledge, the more able we are to respond to someone else, to “get” them. This understanding of self and other is, to my mind, only a skill-building exercise of living in relationship. To respond truly to others, to respond without loss of our own self, we must see our human capacity for divine connection.
Too often, we think of taking responsibility for someone or something as a task, a burden, or a financial/time-management hit. There is no question that responsibility takes effort; love also takes effort, though, and gets a much better rap. I submit that responsibility, when understood as an ability (response-ability), is a limitless capacity. Like love, response-ability grows the more one shares it, without itself being diminished. Response-ability is the recognition that we, each and every one of us, are connected.
We are connected because we are all part of this world; we are all God’s creatures. We are connected because of our shared humanity; we are created in God’s image. We are connected because, regardless of belief in God, we have “something” within us–call it “divine light” or “cosmic DNA” or “neurologic pathways toward sociability”–that shines the more we let it. Responsibility indicates that we take seriously our existence as part of something greater. The more in touch with the infinite totality of our world, the more able we are to take responsibility, to be able to respond, and to be response-able.
Can we help everyone? No, not by ourselves.
Can we address every ill in society? No, not by ourselves and probably not in our lifetime.
Can we make a difference? Yes.
Can we be responsible for those near and far (geographically and personally)? Yes.
Will we? That depends on how we understand our response-ability.
“For whom are we responsible?” We are responsible for our response-ability toward all.