Responsibility

Cliff and I drove down to southern Missouri to see two old friends. Neosho, Missouri, to be precise, which is three plus hours each way. And the friends really are old, in their late eighties. We left at ten and returned home sometime after eight thirty that evening, which meant about seven hours driving and three hours visiting. It takes longer to recoup that kind of day than it did twenty years ago when I was often on a road trip to somewhere or another.

The next day, wondering why in the world I’d wanted to take such a journey, traveling for ten hours and ending up in the same place, I remembered something Cliff spoke about in a homily a couple of weeks earlier: responsibility for and responsibility to.

Bob and Anneta have been family friends since I was seven years old. Bob was the first pastor I ever knew and Anneta my mother’s best friend. Bob buried my father when I was eight; married my mom and dad when I was nine; and buried my mother many years later.  Three ministers presided at Mom’s funeral, and when Bob got up to speak, he told funny stories about when they were all young in their late 20s, and he said it seemed fitting that it took three preachers to bury her as my mother was a woman of deep and abiding faith. We laughed at the stories and nodded about the faith.

The first time I called Anneta after my mother died, she gasped. You have your mother’s voice, she finally said.

I took the journey because I felt responsible to them and to my mother’s memory, and Cliff felt responsible to me because we travel together. But I’m not responsible for them.  And Cliff wasn’t responsible for me. We can only be responsible for ourselves and for our own actions.

It’s an interesting exercise, this responsible to and responsible for. We often get the two mixed up. Leaving aside the issue of underage children or the truly infirm, we too often feel responsible for others’ happiness, for their pain, for their mistakes, and even for the way they treat us. We assume a responsibility that isn’t ours.

When Jesus healed, he always reminded the person of his or her responsibility: go and bathe in the pool; go show yourself to the priests; go and sin no more; go home, your faith has saved you. He must have felt a responsibility to use the gifts he had, but he did not take another’s responsibility to be whole.

It’s a dance in a way, a balancing act to remain responsible for our own actions and avoid taking up responsibility for another. We want to be kind and helpful and loving. We want others to be happy. But oddly enough, in taking responsibility for another’s happiness, we end up making that person unhappy. Wanting another to take responsibility for our happiness also leads to unhappiness – and blame.  

Try this experiment: make a list of all the things for which you feel some responsibility. And then, after each item on your list, write “responsible to” or “responsible for.” You might find yourself switching designations. You might find that you’ve been taking on a responsibility that isn’t yours. You might also find that you have not been taking responsibility for something that is solely yours.  

Which responsibilities do you want to maintain?