Responsibility = Freedom
Why embracing responsibility is liberating, joyful, and world-changing.
Posted May 31, 2019
When you read this command, how does it make you feel?
If you’re like many people, your shoulders may slump. You may feel triggered by childhood memories of parents and teachers admonishing you with those words. You may feel shamed, resistant, hostile.
But taking responsibility for our choices, actions, and the impacts we have on ourselves and others can be liberating.
After the famous Milgram experiment—in which ordinary people obeyed the orders of a scientist who instructed them to deliver increasingly painful and dangerous shocks to a person they’d just met—participants were surveyed to discover how they felt about their involvement in the experiment.
What they didn't know when they arrived at Yale University for the study was that the experiment they thought they were participating in—the impact of punishment on learning—was a ruse. The participants themselves were the actual subjects of a social psychology experiment designed to shed light on our tendency to obey authority figures, even when what we are being told to do goes against our own deeply-held values.
Nor did they know that they weren’t actually shocking anyone, and that the person in the role of “learner” was an actor.
Two-thirds of the participants left the experiment having discovered that they’d been willing to administer potentially fatal shocks to someone screaming in pain, simply because a man in a white lab coat told them to.
What was it like to learn such a thing about oneself?
Eight-four percent of surveyed participants (of the ninety-two percent who responded) reported that they were glad or very glad they’d participated.
One said that he’d been unaware of why he was hurting someone, and that realizing that he’d submitted to an authority figure telling him to do something he believed was wrong would forever impact his thinking and choice-making in positive ways.
Few of us have such an eye-opening opportunity to discover how readily we cede our power to others, or recognize that by not taking responsibility for our actions we are giving up our freedom.
Most of us are unaware that we give up this freedom every day.
Each time we eat a meal or make a purchase without considering the impacts of our choices on other people, animals, and the environment, we cede our power to live according to our values.
Advertisers, influencers, and peer groups tell us what we should buy and eat, how we should live, and what we should do. Preoccupied with our own well-being and habituated to our routines and traditions, we then often mistake our manipulated desires for conscious and conscientious decision-making.
Most of us don’t want to cause harm and suffering to others, yet virtually all of us allow friends, family members, corporations, and our personal impulses to dictate our choices, even when those choices conflict with our values.
If asked, we will readily condemn slavery and child labor—while at the same time purchasing a new cotton T-shirt made in an overseas factory with poor working conditions that exploits and underpays its workers.
If asked, we will readily condemn animal cruelty—while eating a chicken nugget or BLT produced in ways so cruel to hens and pigs we would be sick to our stomachs if we witnessed the abuse for ourselves.
As arduous as it may initially seem to take responsibility for ensuring that our choices are aligned with our values, when we do so, we take back our freedom to live with integrity.
We become like the man in the Milgram experiment whose life was changed for the better when he understood he’d given up his power to an authority figure who demanded that he do something he knew was wrong.
With that said, taking such responsibility is not easy or simple, because we live within an intricate web of systems, and we cannot always disentangle ourselves.
As Philip Zimbardo revealed in his Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE)—another famous social psychology experiment in which ordinary young men placed in the role of prison guards became sadistic, while other ordinary young men placed in the role of prisoners exhibited victim-like behaviors—we may think we are entirely autonomous in our actions, but we are not.
Our behaviors are shaped by the situations we’re in and the systems of which we are a part.
Perhaps this is why the command “take responsibility” can create defensiveness in us. Deep down, whether or not we’ve thought through the complexities, we suspect we’re not entirely responsible for our actions.
Given that we are all embedded in complex, interconnected systems that we have little control over, and that within those systems we also find ourselves in specific situations that influence our choices, we are responsible for only so much.
For example, since it’s impossible to find an electronic device that is produced entirely ethically and sustainably, and since virtually all of us rely on computers, cell phones, and computer-controlled vehicles to one degree or another, it would be unfair to say that each of us is personally responsible for all the negative impacts of our devices on other people, animals, and the environment.
But that doesn’t mean we give up trying to take responsibility. To the greatest degree possible, we should endeavor to make choices that do the most good and the least harm for all beings. Not having full responsibility does not relieve us of our obligation to take responsibility for what we can.
We are also responsible for working to transform unjust, unsustainable, and inhumane systems. In other words, each of us—to the degree we are able—is responsible for becoming a solutionary.
There is deep liberation and joy that comes from a mindset where taking responsibility is not a chore but an opportunity. We elevate ourselves when we happily live in a way that recognizes our interconnectedness. When we assume responsibility for our impact on other people and animals largely invisible to, but deeply affected by us, and for the well-being of the natural world, we discover the peace that comes from living with integrity.
The inner voice that tells us to "take responsibility" does not need to be a scolding parent, but rather a voice of freedom reminding us that we can help build better societies in which all may thrive—through the choices we make and the actions we take every day.