Responsibility: Gift or Obligation?

This post is by contributing blogger Lynne Westmoreland, long-time music instructor and a humane educator. Lynne is a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and is the instructor for our online course, A Better World, A Meaningful Life, which is designed for people who want to put their vision for a better world & a more joyful, examined life into practice.



This question “Who and what am I responsible for?” is one that I have carried with me as a mantra and friend ever since it was posed to me. If we use this question to live mindfully every day, rather than using it to feel we are not doing enough, we can develop a deep and lasting integrated relationship with ourselves and others.

The answer in any one day can range from something as simple as picking up other people's trash when out walking, or as ambitious as committing to attend school board meetings to help steer their attention to creating a nutritious food program, or finding ways to keep the arts and music in the curriculum. Our responsibility to the planet or other human beings might lead us to take on a local environmental or human rights issue or inspire us to become involved in our social or faith communities in addressing global environmental and social justice issues in concert with others all over the world.

So many times it feels easier to say "That's not my problem" or "I didn't cause that so why should I fix it?" or "I've already got too much to worry about." And our culture constantly sends us the message that we should only be looking out for number one and that our love, care, and concern should be only for ourselves, our families, and our immediate circle of friends.

We are constantly being sold the idea that we are all separate and therefore must be in competition with each other, must guard what is ours, and that individualism and seeking after material wealth and power are the signs of a well adjusted and competent person. Messages of collaboration, sharing, altruism, and the search for meaning and joy in one's life are relatively rare in the media, in our workplaces, and sadly, often even in our faith communities. We often view responsibility to people and issues outside of our immediate circles as a bothersome obligation rather than the enormous spiritual gift that it is. In the busyness of our lives,we sometimes forget that pure consciousness and unconditional love is our natural, integral way of being in relationship to each other.

What if we seriously considered, every day, who and what else we choose to be responsible to and for? What if every day began with the question "What good can I do today in the world?" or "Let me see how many I can help today." or "How can I behave in a way that models compassion for everyone and encourages others to do the same?" or "What decisions can I make today that make a difference to the whole and not just to me and mine?"

The message of separateness teaches that we can look out for us (ourselves and loved ones) without being concerned about them (everyone else, animals, planet) and that all will be well. But there is substantial evidence that this message is causing breakdowns in all of our systems, our planetary supports, and our own mental, physical, and spiritual condition. There is increasing scientific support for what helpers and healers throughout all of time have always known: We are happiest when we are in service to others and when our focus is no longer simply on ourselves and our lives.

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