I believe that humans are creatures of limitless, radical responsibility. We are in some sense responsible for everything that happens to us. When I say that, it’s bound to raise a few eyebrows.
Sure, you might be responsible for getting your job done, or for the health of your body, or for the success of your relationships, but surely there are things outside of your control? Surely there are things for which we bear no responsibility. What about hurricanes and tornadoes? Wars and economic depressions? Disease and famine? Are those our responsibility?
Yes, and no. The reason I can say yes is that I define responsibility as simply the ability to respond to a situation in a way to make a more favorable outcome. This is true of humans – though in many different forms – from the time we gain consciousness.
Our responsibility for these things may lie in how we prepare for and respond to hurricanes and tornadoes. It may lie in how we act to foster peace in our own circles, how we act in wartime environment, and how we use violence ourselves. It may lie in how we care for those who are sick, tend our own health, or use resources when food is short. Responsibility is not about the power to exercise total control of the world – it is about the power to respond with our full power within our own part of the world, whatever that looks like.
This is where we get to a vital distinction in ideas of responsibility.
We’ve Confused Fault and Responsibility
The biggest difficulty with maintaining the practice of taking full responsibility is dealing with the inevitable self-blame. Our language has tied up the ideas of responsibility and fault to the point that “it’s your responsibility” and “it’s your fault” mean just about the same thing to us. So for me to say that “everything that happens to you is your responsibility” must sound to a lot of people like “everything bad that has happened to you is your fault.”
For instance, It sounds preposterous to say that a war is “your responsibility” because it would be preposterous to lay the fault of a war at the foot of any one individual. It’s a horrifying thought.
If a war occurs against your own wishes, you have somehow failed to take advantage of the responsibility you have to prevent a given scenario. This can happen directly as an act of commission (you shoot somebody) or as a lack of action (you fail to point out the fallacies of nationalism). Quite a few acts of violence or destruction that make up that war may have happened because of your irresponsible action or inaction. In this way, you are “responsible” for the war and what leads up to it.
On the other hand, it’s profoundly wrong to say that the war is simply your “fault” due to your failure to exercise responsibility. To do that is to deny the complexity of the world. Wars are caused by the responsibility (or lack thereof) of thousands upon thousands of people. They all interplay in ways invisible to any one person.
Add to that the fact that you may already have been exercising your responsibility to alleviate the war by being a combat nurse or a peacemaker of some kind. Your resources and time are limited. If you fail to end the war while trying to alleviate the war, you probably simply made an honest mistake about using your time and resources to be responsible.
In this war example, as well as in most of the “things that are not our job,” we’re talking about bad things which have happened due usually to an innocent failure of our responsibility. To spend time assigning fault for these things makes little sense. To wipe out the responsibility we did have but merely misused also makes little sense.
So even if fault and responsibility act differently, how do we reconcile them when they pop up so close to each other? How do they live together?
Past Fault vs. Present Responsibility
I think the fear of fault often prevents people from taking responsibility. Not taking responsibility may be the biggest fault of all, so it’s important that we look at the yoke of responsibility for life and decide if it’s too heavy or light enough to carry.
If responsibility is about your ability to respond and your ability to grow your ability to respond, then it must be an empowering thing.
There is very little that is empowering about assigning yourself fault for everything. You are a limited human being with limited resources to take advantage of your responsibility. You can try better next time if you fail to achieve a goal, but to focus on fault is squarely to focus on the past. To focus on fault is actually a default on responsibility – which is your ability to respond in the here and now and in the future.
Here is the main difference between fault and responsibility: fault looks backward, while responsibility looks forward. Responsibility lives in the present and the future – what you can do – while fault lives in the past – what you failed to do. The two never meet.
Taken this way, fault merely becomes data for a better use of responsibility – not a weight of responsibility itself. It feeds back into how you use your awesome ability to respond to the world around you. That awesome ability – responsibility – can operate untarnished by fear of failure or how people blame you for your past failures.
This all means that radical responsibility is the most practical thing in the world. It’s never something to beat yourself up about. It’s only something to try to experience more and more as you learn and grow. Accept that it is already yours, and you will come to learn it more thoroughly and use it more thoroughly as life throws more challenges your way
There is your difference between fault and responsibility.
Learn the difference between the two, take on your responsibility, accept and then leave behind your faults, and you might be surprised at your power to change your circumstances.