Joyless Responsibility

griefI‘ve written recently about the importance of each of us accepting personal responsibility for our actions, for our inactions, and for knowing their consequences. It is natural to accept responsibility, because in nature it is almost always joyful. It entails raising offspring, together, as community, and looking out for each other. It entails taking only what we need and knowing that by living simply we are preserving and sustaining a rich diversity of life that reciprocates our taking responsibility, and provides for us, so that our lives can continue to be joyful, astonishing, easy.

But sometimes we have to take responsibility that is joyless, a burden, a thankless chore. For a few weeks each year when the fledglings are young, the adult birds in our yard look disheveled, exhausted. They know, I suppose, that it will pass, so they labour on, but they look tragic, unnatural. For many humans, too, responsibility is thrust on us unasked, even unfairly, and in our modern fractured nuclear society it is rarely shared.

In civilized human society, these burdens may not be so short-lived. We can suddenly find ourselves facing a lengthy term of joyless responsibility for:

  • Elder relatives incapable of looking after themselves
  • Troubled or handicapped children or other relatives
  • More dependents than we can cope with
  • Animals (often ill or unsocialized) that no one else will take responsibility for
  • A dysfunctional spouse or addicted family member
  • Sustaining a marriage that is loveless and dysfunctional
  • A farm or small business that is overwhelmingly stressful and not really viable (the suicide rate among farmers in some nations is epidemic)
  • Charitable, social work or health care work
  • Dysfunctional students
  • Subordinate employees and co-workers in a stressful, unmanageable corporation
  • Unmanageable debts or contractual obligations

The work that comes with this responsibility, in addition to being protracted, perhaps even interminable, is also often arduous, unappreciated, and not terribly successful at making anything better. No surprise, then, that we see so much stress and unhappiness in the extraordinarily affluent nations of our world. No surprise, either, that escape, if only for a week, or a day, or the length of time the next substance-induced ‘high’ lasts, is the fondest dream of so many.

Some of this responsibility is thrust on people unwillingly, in which case the sufferer often feels the world is treating them unfairly. Some of it is, at least initially, accepted willingly, even embraced with excitement, but later, as frustration, failure and disillusionment set in, becomes loathsome, unbearable, and then there is the additional torment of feeling that it was their fault, that they have only themselves to blame.

How do we cope when this happens to us? If there were an easy answer it wouldn’t be such a prevalent and intractable problem for so many. In some cases it may be possible to:

  1. Spread the responsibility: Reach out and ask others to help. This may require swallowing one’s pride, or paying or making some other sacrifice. In some cases this cost is so unbearable or unaffordable that it’s not worth it. In some cases, where the helpers are incompetent or lazy, it may not help. In some cases it may take skills or time or energy to find the right people to help, that the sufferer just doesn’t have. But sometimes it works. Many hands make light work, and all that.
  2. Share the grief: Losing our freedom can cause more suffering than almost any other imaginable affliction. It can make us crazy. Telling someone who cares can, sometimes, for some people, help partly unburden, get the grief and anger and terror out there where it can be seen for what it is, instead of bottled up inside. 
  3. Increase resilience: Sleep and exercise can make the unbearable a little less unbearable. 
  4. Just walk away: This one is tougher, and rarely works, but in those cases where it is clear that (a) the responsibility will never end, it’s for life, and (b) the work you’re doing is not really helping, it may be the answer, the only answer. Is it irresponsible to give up on a failed marriage, a job looking after the needy that’s burning you out, or an obligation that can’t ever be repaid? Maybe. But sometimes you have to weigh your responsibility to yourself against that owed to others. If you trust your instincts, sometimes they will tell you what you can’t bear to admit to yourself.

I’ve written before about another form of grief, regret for what happened in the past, or what might have been but never was, and how pointless but tempting it is to let that grief eat you up forever. The grief of putting up with unbearable stress, responsibility and self-deprivation in the hope that it is really making a difference, that, in the end, it will all have been worthwhile, is the mirror image of this, another self-constructed and endlessly agonizing fiction.

But suppose we do not live today with such responsibility. What then is our responsibility to the billions of others who are living lives of endless, lonely, joyless responsibility? What if anything do we owe them?

The prevailing ethos of our time is that ‘we are not our brother’s keeper’, but that we are responsible for family members in need. As well-entrenched as this ethos is in most modern religions, its logic is unfathomable to me. We are either responsible for others or we are not. And if we are, and if by accepting responsibility we are merely exchanging someone else’s unbearable anguish and burden for our own, what do we accomplish?

I have no answers to these questions. The problem of our responsibility in a world of so much suffering is an intractable one, and it has no simple answers, if it has any answer at all. Perhaps that realization is what inspired Eliot to write the Four Quartets, and especially these three excerpts on global human suffering and how we cope with it:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere…

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present…

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

(Sigh.) I still have so much to learn.

Category: Being Human
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5 Responses to Joyless Responsibility

  1. MLU says:

    Eliot is a good one to turn to with such questions. He saw earlier and more clearly than most people the nature of modernity, and then he rejected its fundamental precepts and returned to a traditional faith, noting that in a world in full retreat one who advances will appear to run away.Part of what he knows is the illusory nature of all those passing years, and also the illusory nature of our separation.It’s but a moment, if you can see it clearly. And not without joy.

  2. janet says:

    Thanks for this timely post.

  3. Theresa says:

    I must say this is the single most depressing blog entry of yours I’ve ever read. Considering all of the ideas presented here, and weighing them carefully, my mind drifts to the “solutions” found by Inuit people in times of desperation – infanticide, murder, suicide. Based on the direction that you say our civilization is headed, and based on things you’ve said in the past about suicide being an option in times of desperation, well it really makes me wonder. I always try to follow your ideas to their inevitable conclusion and they usually leave me with a new and interesting insight into the world we live in and where it might be headed. Other times it leaves me looking into a frightening black chasm with visions of a horrid future.

  4. Theresa says:

    I think I may have over reacted to that post yesterday and read too much into it. The advice about increasing resilience was really quite useful and worth more investigation

  5. Bob says:

    Hello there! I am inviting members of Priscilla Palmer’s Personal Development List to participate in a blog series based on the Desiderata. I hope you’ll consider participating.

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