The Allure of Responsibility

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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.

Signals for the Yes

As we embrace a kind of holy indifference for those things which are not our responsibility (at least not for now), we discover new energy for those peculiar spaces we are meant to inhabit, those conversations that perhaps we alone can pursue, that obscure work that few notice and might go entirely ignored unless we stray from the pack and get to it. So long as we expend our energy churning to keep up with everyone else’s burning emergency, we have no energy for the one life we must live. Inevitably, we find ourselves bone-weary, guilt-laden or perhaps worst of all – a cynic unable to live open, generous and free.

Last week, a good friend reminded me of David Whyte’s words I’ve long appreciated: “the antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” To be sure, rest and leisure, kicking up the feet and laying low for a spell, is more than necessary. Yet, our deep weariness comes whenever our skill, energy or hopes do not burn from that deep truth God has tattooed on our soul. To live wholehearted, we must say no to many worthwhile things, and we must say yes to a few absolutely essential things.

I’ve happened upon a few signals (and I’m sure there are more) for how to know where my yes should be. I pay attention to the tears, particularly those moments where my heart takes a prick and I don’t know exactly why – this is a path I should follow. I pay attention to the joy, those jolts of delight or pleasure that always make me more alive, more gentle, more bold. And I pay attention to the quiet, those occasions where I sense a conviction of something I must do – but I don’t want to talk about it just now. It’s a smoldering fire; there’s heat but also a reticence to draw too much attention.