One of the major themes of this election cycle has been one of individualism vs. “collectivism.” The argument of those on the individualist side seems to be that people need to take responsibility for themselves. If we do too much to shelter people from the harsher realities of life, then, it seems, people will lose initiative to take care of themselves and will become dependent on the system to support them.
I can see the point of this argument. We have all known people who seemed to feel like the world owed them a favor, who didn’t seem to want to step up to the plate and take responsibility.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think you really understand what it means to be responsible until you start taking some responsibility for more than your own little life. Certainly, the whole idea of what it meant to be responsible changed drastically the moment I became a parent. Suddenly, working and paying my household bills seemed like a trivial task compared with the need to make sure that nutritious meals turned up on time, that baths and clean clothes and bedtime all happened at the appropriate moments, that enriching opportunities for learning and growth appeared—without any pressure or agenda. And all those tasks are minor compared with the responsibility of providing just the right blend of openness and limits, of connection and independence, of work and play and rest. And we won’t even go into what it takes to maintain a loving composure in the face of two-year-old temper tantrums or the eye-rolling snideness of a teen.
Being responsible for a child is a massive undertaking. But it’s only the beginning. Those of us who are truly responsible know that we have responsibilities to our neighbors. We clean up after our dogs, and shovel our sidewalks when it snows. And if you’re going to participate in a democracy then you have a responsibility to make your vote count, to be informed, to weigh in on those matters that concern you, whether it be a traffic light in front of your local school or a giant oil pipeline running across your country. When tragedy hits across the world in the form of a hurricane or a tsunami and we reach out to help, we might realize that our responsibilities don’t end with the borders of our own particular country.
In fact, our responsibilities reach out across time as well as space. Do we not have some obligation to hand off to our children and our neighbors’ children an earth that is still hospitable and green, not to mention an education system that prepares the next generation for a future we can’t quite imagine?
Yes, I’m all in favor of personal responsibility. But I think we haven’t begun to touch our responsibilities until we’ve committed ourselves as broadly and deeply as possible to the health and well-being of all those whom our lives touch.