What does it mean to take responsibility? It took me many years to start contemplating this question. Because of the nature of meaning, the answer will not be constant. However, there seem to be some common attributes regarding responsibility that appear to stand the test of time.
“Unless he stands firmly on his own two feet, the so-called objective values profit him nothing, since they then only serve as a substitute for character and so help to suppress his individuality. Naturally, society has an indisputable right to protect itself against arrant subjectivisims, but, in so far as society itself is composed of de-individualized persons it is completely at the mercy of ruthless individualists. Let it band together into groups and organizations as much as it likes - it is just this banding together and the resultant extinction of the individual personality that makes it succumb so readily to a dictator. A million zeros joined together do not unfortunately, add up to one. Ultimately everything depends on the quality of the individual, but the fatally shortsighted habit of our age is to think only in terms of large numbers and mass organizations, though one would think that the world had seen more than enough of what a well-disciplined mob can do in the hands of a single madman. Unfortunately, this realization does not seem to have penetrated very far - and our blindness in this respect is extremely dangerous.” Pg. 55 CG Jung, The Undiscovered Self
Where Are We?
To understand what it means to take responsibility, perhaps a right place to start is to look at how avoiding responsibility shows up and some of the reasons that may occur. When we boil it down, the only responsibility that we can take is personal responsibility. We cannot be directly responsible for what others or groups at large do. We can understand that groups are made up of many individuals. Within these groups of individuals, we only have a semblance of control over ourselves. We can imagine that when the individual gets lost in the system, it is easy to lose our sense of personal responsibility.
I recently watched Chernobyl, the television series. The disaster that took place clearly showed what happens when we lie and do not accept personal responsibility. The communist machine was so large, durable, and built on lies that no one could tell the truth and take responsibility for mistakes that they made. By lying, we cover up facts. By recognizing the truth, we can take action to solve the issue at hand. Problems are like dragons. When we look the other way, the dragon remains and grows more prominent with time. By lying, we metaphorically look the other way. This situation is what happened during the Chernobyl disaster. There were many lies, and people looked the other way when there was a known problem with reactor safety. Because of this abdication, many people lost their lives.
Now, in the West, the systems that we live in are not as harsh as communism. There are, however, several systems that do allow us to avoid responsibility. For instance, we could look at three societally pervasive cases: government, corporate, and healthcare systems. To some degree, these constructs improve our lives and take care of us. On the other hand, when they become too strong, we can grow up and then again return to being children. This situation is true because we do not have to take responsibility and think for ourselves. Our jobs and daily tasks have been broken up into such small pieces that little, to no challenge, must be surmounted. We, as humans, were designed to face adversity and hardship.
“Law is a necessary precondition to salvation, so to speak; necessary, but insufficient. Law provides the borders that limit chaos, and allows for the protected maturation of the individual. Law disciplines possibility, and allows the disciplined individual to bring his or her potentialities – those intrapsychic spirits – under voluntary control; allows for the application of such potentiality to the task of creative and courageous existence; allows spiritual water controlled flow into the valley of the shadow of death. Law held as absolute, by contrast, puts man in the position of the eternal adolescent, dependent upon the father for every vital decision; removes the responsibility for action from the individual, and therefore prevents him or her from discovering the potential grandeur of the soul. Life without law remains chaotic, affectively intolerable. Life that is pure law becomes sterile, equally unbearable. The domination of chaos or sterility equally breeds murderous resentment and hatred.” Pg. 309 - 310 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
We can see some of this responsibility avoidance in our everyday lives when we observe our language. It is essential to look at the power of speech. When we speak something into existence, it is a profound action. Therefore, if we talk, it is important to think about and comprehend what it is that we are saying. A few examples that come to mind are as follows.
When people feel that there has been some life event or something in the world that they don’t like, want or agree with, they will often say: “it is what it is.” This phrase seems to be utilized when people are refusing to make the proper sacrifices and to take responsibility. For example, winning a competition or meeting a deadline. When people fail at these tasks, they will say, “it is what it is.” In this case, it is shifting the burden of responsibility from our own back.
If we miss a deadline, there is some part of that which is our responsibility. Now if we say that we have little to no influence or control over something, then that suggests that we think that we have no control over that aspect of our lives. This idea should not be the case because we can quickly see that we have more influence than we at first would like to imagine. Therefore, everything that we do and everything that we do not do matters a tremendous amount. It is essential to point out that at this point, we do not have complete control over even the things in our direct surroundings. This notion means that while we should take control of the things that we do affect, we need to be able to separate what it is that we cannot control. For example, luck, or chance; these concepts play a much more significant role in people being successful than we would like to admit. We don’t want to comprehend this because if that is the case then perhaps even if we work very hard we will not become the next Steve Jobs. This thought again could be a way for us to sidestep responsibility.
There is another phrase that has at least dual meaning, “such is life.” On the one hand, this phrase could be used to give up responsibility, and say, “That’s just the way things are.” In this approach, there is no acceptance and in fact, dissatisfaction with the way things are. “Things are the way they are, I have no control, and I’m not going to try to change things.” On the other hand, it could be a full acceptance of the way that things are. It could be pointing at some built-in, fundamental aspect of life. We could be looking at the “suchness” of life, or something like “that is the way things are, and it’s okay.”
To this point, we have examined many of the things that we do, what about when we observe another? One phrase that comes to mind is: “We judge others by their actions, and ourselves by our intentions.” The noteworthy thing is that our intentions do little in terms of mattering. It is what we do that makes an impact. We act based off of information received through communication. When we form some action, we communicate, we show who we are, not who we think that we are or who we intend to be. We also use language, both written and verbal, to convey our ideas and intentions. We can take a step back, look at our oral communications and see that we act much differently than what we say. Our language conveys our intention, but our actions often paint a much different story. It is for this reason that we need to take personal responsibility to observe this and lessen the dissonance.
Where “Should” We Go?
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
We make value-based judgments to orient toward a goal. What we value is meaningful. We must take responsibility and make appropriate sacrifices to orient and move toward our value-based goals. We at first need to know how to get from where we stand to the point of achieving our goals. The critical aspect is to note what the journey between where we are and where we want to go entails. This separation is where responsibility comes into play. If we’re going to achieve some goal, we must take personal responsibility to make that happen. It is imperative to break a goal such as climbing Everest down into crumb sized bites.
In western society, people are told that they can be anything that they want to be. People say that “I can become the next Steve Jobs,” and the appropriate answer is “No, you cannot.” We do not have his DNA, and we were not raised like him. Additionally, what is not realized are the sacrifices that he made to get to where he was. He gave it ALL up for the creation of a company, a product, a brand, a vision. He delayed gratification for years or even decades, as did all of the historical master’s. We must be able and willing to ask ourselves, what are we REALLY willing to do? My guess is that as a millennial, we are not ready to take responsibility and to make the appropriate sacrifice. We, as a generation value “freedom” or “rights” more highly than we do long term goal setting, commitment, and discipline. This approach leads to a path of impulsive, instant gratification based behavior. This situation does not have to be the case. We can have what we want, but we must be willing to take on what is necessary to achieve such a goal.
If we are willing to accept this burden of responsibility, then the next step is to look within ourselves. By turning inside, we can start to learn about what we have to offer. It is easy to look at others and see what it is that we are not. Instead, we must be prepared to look inside, see all of the scars, but also see what unique gifts we as divine individuals have to offer the world. It then becomes our responsibility to nurture those aspects and to share with the group at large.
How to get from where we are, to where we want to go?
We all have a sphere of influence. This notion is to say; there is a realm directly around us that we can impact. This point is where we can start the work. The ground zero of all of this is ourselves. We have to do the work to discover who we are in an era that values the group over the individual. We have all been lost in a sea of the collective. It is our time to take a step back and question, who are we, and what do we want? From here we can learn about ourselves. The very next step is taking the responsibility to become that person. By taking on this responsibility, we realize that there are sacrifices that we will have to make. If we have correctly chosen what to pursue, we will be able to make those tough choices. Additionally, by taking this responsibility, it means there is real room for error and failure. Responsibility harbors an actual cost, with real potential negative consequences. This approach, however, is better than the alternative of living in a fairytale world instead of reality.
What does that journey mean?
Moving toward a place of taking personal responsibility is a painful process. To understand where we are, we must face the fact that we are probably not as good as we tell ourselves. For example, if we want to work toward being a better dancer and yet day after day, we come home and watch Netflix, then this is not taking the necessary action. We also must take responsibility when we do not reach our goals. It was not because we cannot learn to dance that we have not reached our goals; instead, we are not taking personal responsibility by making the appropriate sacrifices. For example, if we want to learn how to dance, perhaps, we should start with watching one Youtube video per week and learning the step. If we do this for a week or two in a row, we could progress to two videos, etc. Then, eventually, we will have reached our goal with no issue. However, it is our responsibility to make ourselves accountable to these goals all the while being sure not to become an overbearing self-tyrant.
We must keep in mind that no one will be there to hold our hand or tell us that we must take this responsibility. Quite the opposite will most likely become true. Many people would rather complain about what is wrong than to do something to fix it. When those folks see people trying to better themselves, they will tear that person down. This idea is a crucial indicator to leave those people behind. In doing so, one can position themselves in an isolated situation. I have spoken to many people who have isolated themselves for many years because they thought that all people would rip them down as they tried to better who they are. However, I can assure you that there are people out there that want to help to build us up. They are out there; we need to look in the proper location. Instead of asking, “what is wrong with me?” We can learn to ask better questions and think, “how can I look better, or where else could I look for people who nurture me?”
There are people out there taking responsibility to improve themselves. Some communities do not use terms like “it is what it is,” or “such is life” in the negative sense. There are groups out there who value individual development. They are rare because most groups thrive on the individual being weak, afraid, and helpless. We can come together and begin to form communities that focus on the individual in the hopes of bettering each. We can hold a vision of groups that better the individual to have a better group overall. As in teamwork, the sum of the parts are more significant than any individual, but it goes both ways. If the individuals are healthy, independent, self-realized, self-actualized, and responsible, then the group will be more powerful and well functioning compared to not having these sort of values. The individual can only do this by working to find “self-knowledge” which only comes through inner exploration.
“...This responsibility means acceptance of the trials and tribulations associated with expression of unique individuality, as well as respect for such expression in others. Such acceptance, expression and respect requires courage in the absence of certainty, and discipline in the smallest matters.
Rejection of moral truth allows for rationalization of cowardly, destructive, degenerate self-indulgence. This is one of the most potent attractions of such rejection, and constitutes primary motivation for the lie. The lie, above all else, threatens the individual – and the interpersonal. The lie is predicated upon the presupposition that the tragedy of individuality is unbearable – that human experience itself is evil. The individual lies because he is afraid – and it is not the lies he tells another that present the clearest danger, but the lies he tells himself. The root of social and individual psychopathology, the “denial,” the “repression” – is the lie. The most dangerous lie of all is devoted towards denial of individual responsibility – towards denial of individual divinity.” Pg. 362 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief