As I recover, slowly and gratefully, from heart surgery and continue to receive regular treatment for cancer, I’m thinking a lot about responsibility.
Responsibility is “the ability to respond.” To say “I’m responsible” is to say “I have the will and the capacity to respond.” When we’re responsible, we give wise answers to life’s circumstances and, most crucially, to the Giver of life.
Though we can and do volunteer for some responsibilities, the most significant ones claim us. They find us in our roles, promises, covenants, and positions. Responsibilities are woven into the fabric of our relationships, inseparable from our opportunities, integral to our possibilities, twinned with our freedoms, and inseparable from our communities’ wounds and hopes.
Responsibilities are wrapped-up with our gifts; in fact, they are, in themselves, gifts. They provide opportunities for growth, ways of making a difference, and energy for engagement. Responsibilities affirm who we are matters and that what we do counts.
Responsibilities don’t always feel like gifts, though.
Too often, they seem like grim duties, weary obligations, arbitrary accountabilities, unreasonable expectations, or heartbreaking burdens. When the weight of responsibility threatens to crush us, it’s likely because we’re doing someone else’s work or playing someone else’s role. Or, maybe, we’re attempting to do what we don’t have the gifts, time, and energy to do. Some of us rush too quickly from the discovery of an unmet need to the conclusion that, since we discovered it, it must be ours to meet.
From time to time, and especially now, I have to remind myself of some common, but deep, wisdom: an unmet need, by itself, is not a call. A need and the ability to meet it are not, on their own, an invitation to respond. A need, the capacity to meet it, and a sense of joy, rightness, and peace in doing so are likely signs of a summons to responsibility. This common wisdom is a guide to discerning the shape and scope of our responsibilities; it’s not permission to set-aside responsibilities which are already ours when they become difficult. It’s possible to experience joy in adversity, rightness in difficulty, and peace in chaos. Some of the most satisfying and absorbing work I’ve done has also been the hardest.
In his last book, The Responsible Self, released after his death in the early 1960s, H. Richard Niebuhr, sketched an approach to ethics based on the idea that human flourishing is connected to the choices we make in response to what happens to us. We inevitably interpret what happens to us; we tell ourselves stories about what has happened, why it happened, and how our responses may bend the story in meaningful directions. Niebuhr gave particular attention to what we learn about responsibility from suffering. My “take” on what he says is: the choices we make in circumstances of injustice, oppression, limitation, serious illness, grave injury, or intense pain, psychic and physical, refine and reveal our essential honest-to-God selves. Suffering strips away what isn’t real or true; it clarifies our vision. (New York: Harper and Row, 1963; see especially pp. 57-68).
I see myself, life, and God in ways I didn’t, and likely couldn’t have, six and a half years ago. I’ve experienced some of the ways brokenness restores, vulnerability strengthens, and limitation liberates. I know about the joy of grief. Proximity to death has made life more vivid and valuable. I’ve practiced letting go and, in the process, learned about grateful receiving. Mary Oliver’s well-known question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” is becoming “With what remains, who are you called to be now and what are you called to do here? The question is a gift.