I anticipated that, when I began more consciously and methodically applying an existential vision of responsibility (as described by psychologist, Rollo May, in Man’s Search for Himself) to my own life I would experience an overall increase in positive feelings toward situations that had been trying me, toward which I was developing a sluggish–even neglectful or resentful–attitude, or that were otherwise “weighing me down.” That I would feel more empowered. More firmly rooted in myself and strengthened in my capacity to make meaningful decisions about my daily life. To be ever-evolving. I also stated that if I was happy with the results of my endeavor to take greater responsibility for the happenings of my everyday life, including attitudes, responses, and routines, I would continue my “responsibility experiment” for another seven days.
I am happy to report that I was partially right. And the experiment continues. To be clear, I don’t particularly think I have a problem in the area of responsibility (at least, not to the degree that it causes me distress), but there is room for improvement. I have, I believe, been using an approach similar to the kind May suggests with myself (to varying degrees over time) for a number of years. I am also not currently experiencing major upheaval in my life. No traumas. No catastrophes. No real grief. Just the complications of daily living. Work. Relationships. Creative projects. Mild existential crises. The kind of stuff that can wear away at a person slowly. With that said, here is a bit about what I did in my little responsibility experiment and some of the changes I observed as a result:
It’s not all positive.
There wasn’t a set number of times per day I reaffirmed responsibility for my life. Nor, did I keep a written record of such activities. (It didn’t make sense to me to be so rigid with myself.) Rather, I found it most helpful to remind myself in the morning, before work (the professional sphere of my life currently representing my greatest obstacle), that I choose how my day will be. That I choose this job, these people, this routine. Before my run. Before my coffee. Before my shower. I reminded myself that the day was actually mine to own. The proverbial buck stops here.
I also reminded myself throughout the day as necessary, as I felt myself slipping into states of angst, anger, bouts of helplessness, or in dealing with high-stress situations. “I choose this.” What am I thinking?
I immediately reminded myself why I accept it. What purpose this work/scenario/customer serves in my life. Indeed, a coworker asked me a few days ago, upon learning of my job history, why I chose my current position.
“But, isn’t this, like, a step down for you?”
Yes. And one I am grateful for. Or, at least, I was grateful for it at the time I accepted the position.
“This job doesn’t require as much of me as some of the others did,” I explained. “I don’t have to make this job my life. It gives me the time to learn and hone my skills in another area in which I’ve decided I want to move forward.” It’s a compromise. In every sense of the word.
“Yeah, that makes sense. It’s a good idea.”
My colleague’s affirmation of my decision, though helpful, was far less important than the experience of hearing myself speak the words. (It also made the whole, “So, I have this blog…” conversation feel a little less weird.) I was reminded why I chose my current position. I don’t love it. (Often, I don’t even like it.) I have outgrown it. But, it serves a very real purpose in my life. And, I chose it for that reason. And, every day I get up, take myself to my place of employment, and do what is asked of me, I choose it for that reason.
But, even then, neither the experience, nor my thinking about it, creates an overwhelmingly positive impression. The recognition of purpose doesn’t necessarily eradicate ill feelings. The assumption of responsibility can, however, create a sense of urgency to act. I ask myself, is there a more amenable, more lucrative way to achieve the same end–one more suited to my personality, preferences, and aptitudes? Sure. In the meantime… Better yet, I ask myself, is it still “the meantime,” or is it time to take some sort of a plunge? Did the time come when I wasn’t looking? Why am I dawdling? Which leads me to my next point…
It’s about time.
I’ve just finished another of May’s works, The Discovery of Being, in which he dedicates an entire chapter to the importance of time in existential analysis. He writes:
One of the distinctive contributions of the existential analysts…is that, having placed time in the center of the psychological picture, they propose that the future, in contrast to the present or past, is the dominant mode of time for human beings. Personality can be understood only as we see it on a trajectory toward its future; a man can understand himself only as he projects himself forward…The self is to be seen in its potentiality.
Yes. I love this passage for a number of reasons. Foremost, though, is the notion that I am to see myself as always in the process of becoming, evolving, progressing, actualizing potential. And that I am in charge of that development. But, I already knew this about myself, didn’t I? That I must always be forward-looking, always creating, always doing.
But, this portrait of time takes on a slightly different hue in light of the responsibility experiment. First, I’d be lying if I said I always look to a future point–a goal, an image of a future self, or other creative vision–for inspiration when I need it. I don’t. Sometimes, I allow myself to wallow in the intolerability of the present. I get cranky when I have a bad day. When I don’t sleep well. I can get short with people who are rude. I get thinking that this is (heavy sigh) just the way things are.
Passivity. Luckily, these phases, when they occur, don’t last long. (As a side note, psychologist, Jordan Peterson, gives a very insightful description of these oscillations between activity and passivity in his book, 12 Rules for Life. As a double side note, I wonder, is it possible that creative people have an almost built-in defense to this kind of thinking, hard-wired into the need to constantly be “making?” I sometimes think I see this in myself.) For the purposes of this experiment, I tried to be keenly aware of these negative thoughts and feelings as they emerged and to respond to them quickly (before they snowballed out of control and definitively changed my mood) by refocusing my attention on a future point. This works.
It’s a way of pulling oneself up and out of not-so-pleasant circumstances. I remind myself of a goal, of the beauty or vibrancy of a creative project that I’m currently immersed in or conceiving of, of my various why’s. And, I am instantly imbued with a sense of control. Reoriented. Refreshed, in a sense. I’ve chosen this. It’s not perfect. But, I got this.
Size is (often) a matter of perspective.
I’ve already told you about my moment of encounter with myself on Kilimanjaro. The moment in which I was able, for the first time, to really see the whining, complaining, sniveling, self-sabotaging side of myself. It was, at once, a moment characterized by horror and hilarity. Tragic, even. I also experienced another moment of clarity on the mountain (or, perhaps, it was all the same moment) in which I realized–really realized, deep down in my gut–how small and frail my life is. Measly. (I use the term lovingly.)
What does that realization have to do with the responsibility experiment? When I assume greater responsibility for my daily activities, I begin to understand that I make certain decisions that make me feel small. Sometimes, this feeling is discreet. And the decisions appear, on their face, to be inconsequential. A matter of succumbing to routine. It is only in light of the recognition that I choose this for myself that I begin to think, “But, how could I treat myself this way?” I am overcome by feelings of sadness. Flooded with a sense of compassion for myself. Why am I keeping myself small? I don’t deserve that, do I?
I only have one measly, little life. Why am I hemming it in? Shouldn’t that notion, in itself, be freeing?