What is “good enough” responsibility?
Last week, I was relaying a story about a discussion with my students around decision-making and responsibility. I asked them to define “responsibility.” I jotted down some of their thoughts:
- in charge of some action or choice
- taking ownership
- taking control of own actions
- reflecting on and/or understanding your self
- a mindset (taking action on specific task)
I added, “I often like to say, ‘respondability,’ because I think it makes the meaning more clear: I have the ability to respond to the situation.” Of course, responsibility is not so simple because it can be assigned to us, assumed of us, regardless of our involvement in the situation, our opinions, capability, or much of anything else. Ultimately, responsibility is negotiated, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
In his book Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World, Thomas Plante discusses the notion of “good enough” responsibility. I wanted to bring the idea across to my students, so I pushed further into the fictitious scenario I had devised: I got in a fight with (student willing to be in the hot seat) and we’re still upset about it. Granted, I haven’t read Plante’s book in years, so please take my interpretation with a grain of salt…
“So let’s say that you told a ‘dad joke,’ a pun, that was actually about dads. You didn’t know it, but my dad died yesterday. That’s what started our fight. OK, student, what is your responsibility to me right now?”
“Well, I didn’t do anything to you!”
I couldn’t have asked for a better response. “Hmmm, sounds like you’re being defensive. Are you being a victim right now?” Pause. “I didn’t ask what’s fair**. What is your responsibility to me right now? Assume we’re friends and we want to preserve the relationship.”
Softening. “Well, I care that you’re upset. I guess I can take responsibility for helping you feel better.”
“Excellent. Would it be reasonable for you to take responsibility for knowing that my dad died if I never told you?”
Collectively they shake their heads, “No.”
“Is it reasonable to take responsibility for my feelings? either before or after you apologize and check in with me?”
“OK, what if I had texted you this morning to tell you that my dad died, but you didn’t see the text?”
Collective looks of horror and questioning… “Uh… I don’t know…”
“You can understand why I’m so upset. Has your responsibility changed?”
They weren’t really clear on how to respond, but seemed to agree that their responsibility hadn’t changed, though their understanding of the situation produced a much softer response and openness to taking responsibility.
“So, if we’re talking about ‘good enough’ responsibility, we’re talking about drawing a reasonable line between what is yours and what is mine, with what you are capable of doing in that moment. But it’s a pretty fuzzy line, and it can shift…
Let’s make this more practical. What if we were working on a project together?”
“Easy! 50/50. You do half, I do half.”
“Hmmmm… Sounds good. But what if you are amazing at research and I am amazing at art? What then?”
“Well, you do most of the art and a little research and I will do most of the research and a little art.”
“Great! Good deal. Oh, but wait… What if it takes you twice as long to research as it does for me to make the art?”
Long silence… “Uh, I don’t have an answer for that one…”
“It can get complicated, huh?! The line keeps moving. And if we’re worried about what’s ‘fair’ rather than what we are willing to do — makes it worse, right?”
Lots of nodding.
“So, I’m trying to be clear that even though we are wrapping up this conversation, it never really ends. There isn’t some magic formula for responsibility that makes it clean and easy. This is something you will always need to work on.”
They tidied up their work and got ready for their next class.
I deal with negotiating responsibility a lot lately, with students and coworkers more often than not. When any of us are in a victim mindset, it makes it very difficult, as we want to push responsibility off on others instead of taking it on ourselves. We’re desperate for people to notice our suffering and reduce our burden. The painful truth is that the burden is shared regardless, and pushing off responsibility leaves a strange emptiness… I challenge you, next time you are feeling down and shrug off a responsibility, check in with your body sense. Is there a unique feeling of hollowness or cold anywhere in your body? If there is, it’s likely in your chest or gut. Something’s missing…
Responsibility is like that heavy blanket you have on your bed: some nights, it just feels so heavy and warm and suffocating… and other nights, the sheer weight of it brings you comfort.
Ultimately, we are social creatures, and as painful as negotiating responsibility can be, once we work it out, there is a remarkable sense of care, belonging, and security. I dare you to take on something you would normally push off. I dare you.
** Important side note: For the duration of the conversation (and the foreseeable future), I banished the words “fair” and “should.” Both terribly cloud the truth of a situation… So instead, we considered what might be reasonable in a situation.