The Allure of Responsibility


If we are to live wholehearted, there is another word which matters a great deal, a word that has fallen out of favor in our über- independent, you-should-do-anything-you-can-dream self-talk: responsibility. There are many things I am not responsible for (and it’s important to get those things clear, or we’ll suffocate for sure). As Walker Percy said, “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him” However, there are some things I alone am responsible for – and it is my great task to see to them. There are few things (though perhaps only a few) worthy of the weight of our life.

There are two boys in my house who have only one fella to call dad, and that’s me. Miska has only one man to whom she has pledged her love and fidelity, and she has received this pledge from only one man in return. These responsibilities have been handed to me, and I gladly received them (though I was so young and mostly ignorant when I said ‘yes’). These responsibilities are mine. They are a trust, a bond, a calling. Whatever jolt of inspiration I might receive, whatever great stirring of wanderlust or new possibilities – if they pull me from these responsibilities, then they are lies.

There are a few words I must write, a few people I must pastor, a circle of friends who I will walk beside, come hell or high water. There is ground I must tend to, a horizon I must walk toward. To abandon any of these would be a wound to me and to those around me.

To insist we must be attentive to the unique contour of our life is not to throw fuel on the narcissism of our age, where we flit from one whim to the next with little regard for the world or our responsibility to it. Here, we have no silly suggestion that our entire life should be one long, uninterrupted string of thrills and chills. Just the opposite, attentiveness to our life helps us to know where we must lay down our life, if our life is what’s called for. Not everything will be worthy of this sacrifice, but some things are. Some things absolutely are.

The Way of the Crab

On your annual trip to the island, there are certain things you will only encounter if you rise in that hour when the moon melts and the sun yawns and stretches toward the new day. I know this because, left to the powers of inertia, these two weeks inevitably return me to my natural state: late nights and late mornings, something Miska has accepted (encouraged even), though she does not understand. When the wise ones speak of the ways that love must learn to sacrifice for the other, they typically do not have in mind grand gestures such as jumping in front of a bullet or draining your 401K to fulfill your spouse’s dream of sailing a 22-foot cutter to Portugal. Rather, I imagine they envision something more like your early-rising wife slipping gently out of bed so as not to wake you, making certain to leave warm coffee in the pot and ever so softly exiting to answer the ocean’s call.

However, at least once or twice on these trips, a fellow has to be the first to set the beans to brew, the one to sit solitary on the sand and watch the dolphins pass. All the better if the gods, aware that these moments are few, insist on their version of fireworks and allow me a front row seat as the Super Moon tips its hat upon exit.

When you sit quiet on the sand at dawn, this is when you catch sight of the large sand crabs who rarely crawl out their labyrinth tunnels during the day. One particularly large crab, with two beady eyes, emerges from his hole no more than fifteen feet from me. He climbs out slowly, eyes taut, watching me, watching me. He stares me down for minutes. I do not move. Is this how prizefighters feel, peering from their corners, before the first bell? I need to scratch my face, but I am in a contest. I do not want to lose, and I do not want to scare the fearful crustacean back underground.

The crab sits frozen, not so much as a twitch. After a long and vigilant surveillance, the crab commences a skittish dance, maybe 10 inches, to the right, tosses a small load of sand out of his claw, dances back to his hole, stares me down for another minute or two, then disappears. This scenario repeats over and again. The little beast’s eyes never slacken, never move off me. The dance is always sidewise, keeping me in full view. The crab moves quick, jerky. I am his sole attention.

Many of us exist in the way of the crab. We live skittish, furtive. We take all our cues from others. We hop sideways, eyes strained for any hint of disapproval. Even when we show ourselves or offer something of ourselves, we move measured and tentative, a demonstration that we’re about to hang our sense of well-being on the way our gift will (or will not) be received. We want to be noticed, and we do not want to be noticed. It’s an exhausting, tenuous subsistence.

I want to tell the crab to watch the waves and the gorgeous moon and those magnificent dolphins, not me. I’d love to see the crab dance bold, maybe strut the Tango or even the Harlem Shake across that sand. Now that would be something.

Courage of Being You

I did not intend to be ‘Stanley Hauerwas.’ I am aware, however, that there is someone out there who bears that name.

So begins the memoir penned by, of course, Stanley Hauerwas. One of the things I believe Hauerwas eludes to is his recognition that the person he has become is not the well-crafted result of a life wrested toward this end.

I believe it one of the grandest illusions of modern humanity, this notion that we can make ourselves to be whoever it is we want to be. I don’t tell my sons that they can do whatever they put their mind to. They have many options, and there are years ahead to discover what is in their heart and how they are to give what is in their heart away to their world. However, there are some things that simply are not meant for them.

The problem is not lack of will or tenacity. The problem (which really is no problem at all – but a gift) is that we are particular beings, with particular bents and unique treasures. Our narrative is uniquely ours, and this narrative is made up of all kinds of intricate details. What we love, what we hate, what we see and how we see it, what makes us cry, what makes us want to gouge our eyes out. All these things make who we are.

I am not made to be anything. I am certainly not made to be everything. I believe each of us are created to be someone particular, to offer something particular. No matter how hard I try, I will never be an Olympic marathoner or at the helm of a Fortune 500 behemoth, thank God. I’m free from that bland and crushing expectation.

However, I also think Hauerwas’ wry line hints at his belief that who he truly is may not be who everyone has imagined him to be. The name and the image have taken on a life all their own. Most of us spend far too much of our time attempting to be a good version of ourselves, an acceptable version, a moderate version, a version that lives up to the billing. Too often, I am too aware of other’s reactions to me, gaging whether or not I should put on the brake, tone down the language, give someone an easy exit.

But if I do any of those, if I become who I’m expected to be rather than who I actually am, I silence the distinct and remarkable gift God intends to offer the world through me. And the same is true for you. It is an act of holy rebellion to refuse the safe path of meeting other’s expectations. It is courageous to listen to God’s voice, to hear God tell you who you are and what you are to be in this world. It is courageous to hear that – and then to live that.

And, let me tell you, our world needs courageous people. We need you.