The Responsibility Experiment

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…

lady with eyeglasses

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?

8 thoughts on “The Responsibility Experiment

  1. This is an interesting essay, and one a lot of people probably will identify with. You’re a seeker, and I admire the way you actively are trying to take your life in your own hands. Trying to look over the horizon or around the next corner — or whatever metaphor for trying to see what’s coming you prefer– is something that consumes most of us.

    Let me play devil’s advocate a bit, though. (In the interests of full disclosure, circumstances have forced me to be more retrospective, lately, so this may not fit)

    Some philosophies (mainly eastern, but also others, going back as far as the Stoics in Greece and Rome, say that realities are only to be found in the present. That what’s in the past has already happened and can’t be changed, and what’s in the future is still a collection of potentialities, variables that are not yet fixed and developed in the time stream. But the present, like standing on the bank of a river, is the only thing that we can experience directly and affect.

    Steve Jobs used to say that the only way to make sense of life, though, was by looking backward and connecting the dots that way. That we can’t connect dots that don’t exist yet, only those that are in the rear-view mirror.

    So my devil’s advocate question is, are you trying to control some things that might be better left to unfold as they will? Are you creating anxiety about things that really can’t be controlled? Yes, it’s generally good to plan ahead, decide on going to college or not, or get married or not, or buy some of that Facebook stock when it was cheap, but an awful lot of life is subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences, isn’t it? How do you balance the randomness of it all with the need to make prudent decisions, and to learn how to go with the flow for the rest?

    Again, I’m forced to be in a “go with the flow” mode right now, but I remember what an old boss, who was a sharecropper’s son from rural South Carolina used to say: “You do what you can and then you have to let the flat side drag.”

    Messy, especially to those of us who crave order and predictability. But so much is unpredictable and disordered that we have to make and accommodation with that or drive ourselves mad, don’t we?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The quick and dirty answer to your question is, “Yes.” You can drive yourself crazy if you don’t know how to go with the flow. It would be unwise to try to take responsibility for something that is clearly outside of one’s control. Sometimes, the only prudent decisions we can make are within a set of given circumstances.

      However, I would also suggest that the “givenness” of one’s circumstances might not always be as clear cut as it seems. This depends on the individual, and it may be impossible to know, without understanding the individual within the larger scope of his/her life (past, present, future aspirations, etc) how to interpret the desire to create order and assume responsibility. For instance, if I’ve made a series of presumably bad decisions over the course of, say, the last five years, which have led to dire consequences in the present, which now feel overwhelming and out of my control, do I wait around for the “flow” of life to sweep me away from it? That may not be a good idea. Sometimes, connecting the dots in retrospect can be revelatory. But, you can’t know that unless you know the person.

      Sometimes, the best parts of life are the most utterly chaotic (my experience)…and so are the worst. Learning how to, as the saying goes, “dance in the rain,” is really what it’s about, I guess. With regard to my testing of “responsibility,” I like to be my own guinea pig. I like to play with ideas that interest me. If I didn’t ask myself a lot of questions, then I wouldn’t learn anything.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. So, it occurred to me, after I published my initial reply, that there was something I forgot to say…

      You asked me about ways for dealing with the unknown. What advice would I give to someone else? Self-belief is my answer. I can only advise based on what I know. And I have always had a good deal of self-belief. I believe, more firmly than anything, that I can handle whatever life throws at me. I have tremendous faith in my abilities. I don’t know why. I don’t even know if that belief is justified. But, I absolutely, unhesitatingly believe it. Even when I freak out a little, that belief remains intact at my core. I can do whatever I need to in whatever predicament I find myself. I always “got this.”

      Cultivate that within yourself. That’s what I would say. If you have a stable center, that’s what you need when life gets ugly. If I can’t believe in myself and in my own creative abilities in those circumstances, I have nothing.

      Anyway….that is all.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t disagree about how essential it is to have a fundamental sense of confidence in yourself, to know you can handle what comes. But that is a different skill or aspect of one’s character than extrapolating outward to cover all other parts of our lives. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. My wife has been a lifelong health nut, eating the healthiest foods, following medical advice and never smoking. She’s had cancer six times in the past 20 years, including lung cancer now that will probably be fatal.

        The Law of Unintended Consequences is just like that. No matter how we strive to know everything, and control everything, the Law says the inherent randomness of the future means there are simply too many variables to account for everything. In effect, we can just do our best, hope for the best, smell the roses when we can and throw ourselves a party for the rest.

        This isn’t a sad thing, but kind of amazing, really. The universe is vastly more amazing than we realize.

        I’m not arguing for lying back and surrendering without striving, though. That ceaseless effort to find the best in us is beautiful. I’m only saying it helps to have a sense of wry humor at those bits of hubris we humans use to hide our panic at how small we are.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t disagree with anything you just said. My cousin’s husband was the picture of good health, a runner, battled with cancer for several years, and left his wife and 5 year old son behind. Some tragedies can’t be prevented. Conversely, there are times when we’re ridiculously lucky and feel we have no right to be. Unintended consequences. We can only do our best to control what we can. But, we can’t let a fear of the unknowable keep us from living. Self-belief can help combat that fear. But, more importantly, it’s an anchor. It’s what can help us pull ourselves up when the unknowable happens in full force. Otherwise, we fall to pieces. I think that kind of self-belief is related to responsibility. I guess that’s what I am saying.

        I continue to keep you in my prayers, btw…And yeah, a sense of humor helps.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s